A Citizen Suing the Department of Justice Needs More than Just a Winning Legal Argument
As I fight on with my computer intrusion lawsuit against the U.S. government, it seems to intersect more clearly with current events every day. And it points to an even larger story.
How widespread is improper government surveillance of journalists, politicians and other U.S. citizens in the name of the fight against terrorism? A few of us found out we were targeted only because we were lucky enough to be alerted by inside sources or other unique ways. How many others were targeted, monitored and watched by government officials but still have no idea it happened?
Who is behind the move to use government surveillance tools against innocent Americans? Do some of these officials still work inside the government? Were some of them the very same officials now implicated in alleged surveillance abuses during Campaign 2016?
In late January, an appeals court heard oral arguments in my federal lawsuit, now entering its fourth year. A panel of three judges will determine what happens next. Here are several possible outcomes:
- The judges side with us. They determine that former Attorney General Eric Holder is not entitled to immunity from lawsuits such as mine. They decide that we had inadequate time in discovery to learn the identities of the “John Doe” federal agents who conducted the remote computer intrusions and surveillance. The case returns to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia where we resume our longstanding attempts to get the Department of Justice to properly respond to document subpoenas, which they have so far failed to do.
- The judges side with the Department of Justice. They determine that Holder and other federal officials enjoy immunity from my lawsuit. The judges also decide that the relatively few weeks that we were given the opportunity for discovery was enough time, even though the Department of Justice fought each subpoena and provided no information, documents or interviews. We then approach the U.S. Supreme Court and ask for a review. This requires preparing a special legal petition. We would also prepare summaries for anyone who wishes to offer an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief. Though not a party to the case, such an individual or interested group would help by offering expertise to the court on the issue at hand and its importance to the public.
- The judges side with us on some issues and side with the Department of Justice on some issues. Each party then decides whether to appeal and/or proceed in District Court.
Regardless of the outcome, this effort will continue to be very expensive. Well, expensive for me and my family. Not so much for the Justice Department, which gets to use an endless supply of your tax money to fight the lawsuit and obstruct discovery.
This case is further complicated by the fact that the Department of Justice would normally be expected to launch a national security or criminal probe into an unlawful computer intrusion of a journalist. A civil suit wouldn’t be necessary to obtain accountability, it would be handled by government prosecutors. But in this case, the Department of Justice is also “the accused.” And they’ve shown no desire to seriously investigate themselves; quite the opposite.
When the would-be investigators are the ones who are accused, how does an alleged victim get justice?
The civil suit is a costly alternative. The person filing it is required to self-finance his own pursuit of justice.
In my case, not only are there ongoing forensics fees, as we continue to uncover evidence; and not only are there legal fees, even with lawyers providing a generous discount and donating much of their own time; but there are also arcane fees that tell their own outrageous story.
It may be interesting to look at some of the numbers.
For example, when it came time to print our brief to submit to the U.S. Court of Appeals, I figured I could have printed it at home for about a $20 cost in terms of ink and paper. I could have had it printed at a professional printing center for about $40.
But in our legal system, those aren’t options. The procedures require us to have the brief professionally printed and bound in a book format. And only certain companies may be used for this service.
So how much was it to print the briefing in the required format?
Instead of $20, it was $4,367.70.
Just to print a brief.
As for attorney’s fees, my appellate attorney was kind enough to offer a deep discount, and his law students generously donated some of their time. But the cost of the work just for the appeal alone — a few months of the four years of legal work to date — totaled over $100,000.
You can see how justice quickly becomes cost-prohibitive and simply out of reach.
When there’s an issue of national importance with broad implications, especially when a journalist is involved, there’s one way to stay in the game in terms of finances: the journalist might be expected to receive legal support from any number of press groups or civil rights organizations. When no such groups step up to help, as is the case with my lawsuit, it’s nearly impossible to pursue a just outcome.
In the big picture, it’s easy to see how the courthouse has grown sadly out of reach to most Americans.
It would be easy to give up. That’s why, I think, the government so often comes out on top, even when it’s arguably done something improper or illegal. Ordinary citizens like us don’t have the millions of dollars it takes to pursue justice against an adversary that has unlimited time and money. They have to give up.
I’m grateful to the constitutional, privacy, civil rights and whistleblower advocates who discovered a few months ago that there were no groups assisting Attkisson v. DOJ and FBI, and started the Attkisson Fourth Amendment Litigation Fund to assist with the lawsuit and fight government overreach.
If you wish to contribute to this fund, the GoFundMe page is here.
I’m told it could be months before the appeals court makes its decision.
Now, we wait.
Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative reporter. “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson” is broadcast Sundays to 43 million Sinclair TV households on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW and Telemundo stations. TV Listings & Times Here; sharylattkisson.com; fullmeasure.news