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Judge won't dismiss states' wiretap suits

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge declined to dismiss lawsuits filed by Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and two other states seeking information on a warrantless wiretap program run by the federal government. The decision keeps the cases alive, pending an appeals court decision.

In his ruling, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker declined yesterday to address the federal government's main argument that the cases should be tossed out because homeland security secrets could be exposed.

Instead, Walker said he would wait until the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the issue. That court is scheduled to hear arguments on the matter on Aug. 15 in San Francisco.

Cindy Cohn, chief lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group that will argue the case against the government in the appeals court, said yesterday's ruling was "significant because the government wanted to kill these cases and the judge refused."

The Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has already ruled that the federal government can invoke security arguments to toss out a wiretap lawsuit filed in Detroit.

Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

In his ruling, Walker said he was skeptical of the government's argument that the states' lawsuits amount to an unreasonable regulation or that they threaten to harm foreign affairs. Still, he said, the government was free to raise the matter again after the appeals court ruling.

Lawyers for New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, Missouri, and Connecticut have said they are pursuing complaints by consumers who argue that their privacy would have been violated if phone records were turned over to the National Security Agency without their consent.

The five states served several telecommunications companies with subpoenas demanding to know what, if any, customer information was turned over to the NSA as part of its antiterrorism efforts.

Attorney General Steve Rowe of Maine said his office and the Public Utilities Commission will review the decision before deciding what steps to take next. But the ruling, he said, "goes a long way toward protecting the privacy of Maine people."

"In an era of data breaches and identity theft, states are working to protect citizens' sensitive personal information," he said.

The cases, plus about two-dozen others brought by consumers, privacy advocates, and others, are all being heard by Walker, who earlier ruled that one case could continue despite objections from government lawyers that the lawsuit could jeopardize state secrets.