Edward Snowden

Richard Leon, judge in NSA spying case, took on US government before

Richard Leon, who's ruled NSA data collection programme probably unconstitutional, does not shy away from criticising US government

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 4:02am

Judge Richard Leon, who shook up Washington this week by declaring a National Security Agency data collection programme "almost Orwellian", is a conservative and a vivid writer who does not shrink from criticising the federal government on matters as varied as pornography, death penalty drugs and terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

His metaphors, I think, are quite devastating to the government

With his use of exclamation points ("utterly disappointing!" he once wrote, excoriating the Food and Drug Administration) and cultural references (he mentioned the Beatles and Ringo Starr in a footnote in Monday's NSA ruling), Leon does not seem bound by judicial sobriety.

"He's very passionate," said Orin Kerr, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and a defender of the NSA's surveillance programmes. He found the judge's ruling short "on legal reasoning".

Leon, 64, a Republican nominated by President George W. Bush has backed the government in past cases. He did so in 2005, holding that detainees at Guantanamo had no right to due process (though he later ordered the release of some).

He is an expert on congressional inquiries. He has worked on several cases involving sitting presidents, including the Iran-contra investigation under president Ronald Reagan and the Whitewater inquiry under president Bill Clinton, and teaches a course on the topic with John Podesta, a Democratic elder statesman who will soon become a counsellor to Obama.

Podesta, a former chief of staff to Clinton who also led numerous frantic efforts to defend the president in an array of scandals, said: "He was the Republican chief counsel investigating Whitewater. Yet we have still formed a strong bond in the classroom because Judge Leon is an honorable guy and a straight shooter."

Lawyers described Leon as congenial and thoughtful. "I don't think anyone could fairly characterise him remotely as a radical," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a lawsuit similar to the one on which Leon ruled on Monday. Jaffer said he found the judge's legal reasoning sound and his colourful language compelling. "His metaphors, I think, are quite devastating to the government," he said.

In his ruling, Leon said the NSA programme that gathers records of Americans' phone calls was most likely unconstitutional.