The ACLU is also seeking some of the same documents via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in October 2011 in federal court in New York. That suit prompted the release of some of the requested documents earlier this week.
In his ruling on Friday, Judge Saylor gave government lawyers until Oct. 4 to identify all legal opinions sought by the ACLU and to establish a timetable to review any classified sections of the opinions for possible redactions prior to public release.
The judge said that after the reviews are complete, it would be up to the author of each opinion whether to propose that the opinion be publicly disclosed.
The Obama administration has opposed release of any FISC opinions in both the New York litigation and in response to the ACLU motion.
Judge Saylor’s order does not guarantee that the FISC decisions will be made public, but it sets in motion a process that opens a door to that possibility.
ACLU lawyers said the ruling was an important decision and a significant victory.
“We are pleased that the surveillance court has recognized the importance of transparency to the ongoing public debate about the NSA’s spying,” said ACLU National Security Project Staff Attorney Alex Abdo, in a statement.
“For too long, the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of Americans has been shrouded in unjustified secrecy,” he said. “Today’s ruling is an overdue rebuke of that practice. Secret law has no place in our democracy.”
Specifically at issue in the motion was an ACLU request for copies of FISC opinions interpreting the scope and constitutionality of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes government officials to seize “any tangible things” relevant to US intelligence gathering related to foreign agents or terrorists. Officials relied on Section 215 for authorization of the telecommunications meta-data collection.