By JOSH GERSTEIN | 12/17/13 8:58 AM EST Updated: 12/17/13 12:41 PM EST
Larry Klayman’s long journey in the legal wilderness appears to be over.
Klayman, the conservative legal activist well-known in Washington political circles a decade ago for his no-holds-barred court battles against the Clinton administration, was thrust back into the spotlight Monday after he obtained the first major ruling from a federal judge that the National Security Agency’s surveillance program was constitutionally flawed.
“We hit the mother lode,” an elated Klayman said Monday, indulging in some of the hyperbole he became known for during his 1990s crusades. “It was the biggest decision in the context of the government in my lifetime. This is the most outrageous invasion of constitutional rights I’ve seen in my life.”
In recent years, the once-prominent Klayman has been associated with a series of causes at the fringe of the conservative movement, arguing that President Barack Obama is a closet Muslim and likely was born in Kenya. The legal gadfly has also struggled personally, drawing a public reprimand by the Florida Bar for his slowness in repaying a client after declaring himself flat broke just three years ago.
However, in winning the ruling Monday from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, the eccentric Klayman and his often comically shoestring conservative organization Freedom Watch effectively beat to the punch — and the headlines — a slew of better known civil liberties groups who have spent years fighting the NSA’s surveillance efforts.
“You got to keep punching. You never give up,” Klayman said when asked about the string of defeats he suffered before connecting on Monday.
NSA surveillance efforts have been the target of litigation for years, well before details of the operations of the programs became public and long before Klayman jumped into the legal fray over the issue.
A lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of Amnesty International and others in 2008 made it all the way to the Supreme Court last year, but was thrown out in February in a 5-4 decision that found the plaintiffs lacked adequate proof their communications had been tracked or monitored by the government.
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden changed that landscape a few months later by leaking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court document confirming that Verizon was ordered to turn over to the government a huge volume of so-called metadata on calls placed through its network.
That leak, which appeared via the Guardian newspaper of Britain on June 5, sent NSA critics back to court.
On June 11, the ACLU — a Verizon customer — filed a lawsuit in Manhattan on the group’s own behalf.
On July 16, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit in San Francisco on behalf of an agglomeration of groups, including anti-drug and gun rights organizations, as well as Greenpeace and Unitarian church groups.
But the indefatigable Klayman had already won the race to the courthouse. On June 6, just a day after the Guardian report, Klayman filed suit in Washington on his own behalf and on behalf of two clients — Charles and Mary Ann Strange, parents of a Navy SEAL killed in a disastrous helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2011.
The suit led to a Nov. 18 hearing in front of Leon. Some reporters showed up expecting a perfunctory court session peppered with some outlandish claims by the always-colorful Klayman. Indeed, there were plenty of those.
Klayman said he and Charles Strange were being targeted by the government because of their claims relating to Strange’s son’s death, which include a complaint that a Muslim imam cursed the dead SEAL team members during a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base.
“My colleagues have received text messages I never sent,” Klayman told the judge. “I think they’re messing with me,” he said, referring to the government.
Klayman implored the judge to rule against the NSA program not only on legal grounds but to avert what the conservative gadfly said was a violent revolution on the verge of breaking out due to the federal government’s unbridled use of power.
“We live in an Orwellian state,” Klayman said, warning that citizens angry about surveillance were about to “rise up.”
If litigation fails, “the only alternative is for people to take matters into their own hands,” he told Leon.
At another point, Klayman said he understood Snowden’s reluctance to return to the United States — the former contractor, he said, was likely to be killed if he came back.
Leon didn’t speak about a revolution in his ruling Monday, but he may have echoed Klayman at one juncture by calling the NSA’s technological capabilities “almost-Orwellian.”
While Klayman’s more provocative comments at the hearing prompted eye-rolling among some in the audience — and certainly differed from the way an ACLU lawyer would have presented the case — the conservative attorney did tick through the legal precedents.
And both the judge and the Justice Department seemed to take the case seriously, though Leon gave few signs he was mulling a major public blow to the surveillance effort. In fact, the judge spent much of the hearing suggesting he had no authority to step into the case.