The Procedural Errors of Warshak v. United States:
In this post on Warshak, I want to address why I think the case was obviously wrongly decided as a procedural matter. The court simply had no business trying to imagine all the ways the statute might be applied and resolving the constitutionality of all of those hypothetical applications. No court has ever done that before, and it's a dramatic break with decades of Fourth Amendment practice that the Supreme Court long ago foreclosed. Not only that, as I have argued in this 2004 law article, it's a reckless practice as a matter of policy: courts simply lack the institutional ability to enact entire surveilance regimes all at once, and any effort to do so is bound to create major headaches (as this one will, for reasons I'll get to in a future post).

  Let's start with some background about how Fourth Amendment law is made. The basic starting point of Fouth Amendment decisionmaking is that it is based on concrete facts: a search or seizure occurs and then its legality is challenged, either pursuant to a civil action or a motion to suppress. The court holds a hearing, figures out exactly what happened, and then applies the Fourth Amendment to the facts as found.

  This does not mean that prospective injunctive relief does not exist in Fourth Amendment law; but it does mean it is rare and its scope is very limited. Courts consider injunctive relief for Fourth Amendment violations when the government has an ongoing program: For example, the police might have enacted a new program putting up a particular kind of road block, or a school might have a policy requiring drug testing of public school students. In these cases, however, the scope of the injunctive relief is always very limited: the court considers whether the recurring known facts as they exist render the government conduct constitutional or unconstitutional. The court's role is limited to giving the existing program the Constitutional thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

  The Warshak court took a radically different approach. According to Judge Martin, courts can rule on facial challenges to statutes that regulate searches and seizures. In this setting, courts have the power to survey all of the possible applications of the statute and determine which ones will be constitutional and which ones won't be; the court can then draft the appropriate injunction to ensure the government oly acts constitutionality in the types of cases potentially covered by the statute. The Court drew this power from two cases: Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 (1967), which considered a facial challenge to a New York wiretapping statute, and Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood, 546 U.S. 320 (2006), the recent abortion case authorizing lower courts to craft injunctive relief for the use of a challenged abortion statute to a set of unconstitutional applications of the statute.

  But this is pretty clearly incorrect. It is true that the Supreme Court did once entertain a facial Fourth Amendment challenge to a statute, in Berger. (There were very unusual circumstances, in case you're interested: Congress was considering the wiretapping legislation ultimately enacted as Title III, and the Justices wanted to and did get their 2 cents in about what it would say. ) However, the Court quickly shut the door on facial Fourth Amendment challeges just a year later in Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40 (1968).