SCOTUS hears arguments in case involving FBI surveillance of California mosques

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court made good on its pledge to hear arguments on whether it should allow a case brought by a group of California Muslims to proceed amid claims that the federal government pegged them for undercover surveillance simply because of their religious affiliation, as CBS News reports.

The controversy at the heart of the disagreement before the justices stems from the placement of an FBI informant who portrayed himself as a convert to Islam as part of a spying initiative inside Southern California mosques in a probe dating all the way back to the summer of 2006, according to the Washington Examiner.

The litigation at issue was initiated against the FBI and five of its agents in 2011 by one of the Muslim targets of the surveillance program in which confidential informant Craig Monteilh infiltrated mosques in order to collect information on the religious community in Orange County, which he did via face-to-face discussions and electronic recordings taken inside homes, places of worship, businesses, and other gatherings.

Eventually, Monteilh seemed to turn and began talking about involving himself in violent action and suggesting that his new acquaintances in the Muslim community join him in such activity, a development that prompted members of those groups to report him to law enforcement agencies.

Once Monteilh was outed as an FBI informant, Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, one of the targets of the aforementioned surveillance, filed suit against the FBI claiming religious discrimination in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments, the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, according to the Examiner.

Ultimately, a federal district court found that Fazaga’s claims could not proceed because of the government’s argument that allowing them to move forward would compromise protected “state secrets” and force dangerous public revelations about the investigation.

However, an appeals court subsequently determined that the district court needed to take a closer look at whether procedures promulgated under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in fact superseded the the state-secret doctrine previously raised by the government and negated its position.

According to CBS News, during arguments on the matter on Monday, Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to indicate his belief that a district court ought to review the government’s reasons for engaging in a wiretapping, particularly when it claims that they cannot be broadly disclosed, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that if the case is returned to the lower courts for such proceedings, they should take pains not to do “a drive-by…on a massively important issue.”

Though it remains unclear which way the justices are truly leaning in terms of permitting Fazaga’s claims to be fully adjudicated, advocates on the plaintiff’s behalf argue that “people challenging abusive spying should have their day in court,” and a ruling from the high court – expected this summer – will determine whether that will indeed occur in this case.