WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court sided unanimously with the Biden administration Friday and reversed a lower court decision that had allowed a lawsuit to go forward by Muslim men claiming FBI religious bias. But the justices' limited decision did not end the case, and the men and their lawyers said they would continue to pursue their lawsuit.
The government had argued that allowing the lawsuit to go forward could reveal national security secrets. The high court, however, didn't decide if that was the case, or whether the lawsuit should have been dismissed.
Instead, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that a federal appeals court had made an error when looking at the case. He said that the appeals court was wrong to conclude that a longstanding “state secrets” privilege, which protects the government from having to reveal certain information, was altered by Congress' passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As a result, the court sent the case back for further review.
Ahilan Arulanantham, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime lawyer for the men in the case, said the Supreme Court made it clear that it was only issuing an “extremely narrow” ruling. He said he was “quite pleased” the court let the case continue and did not rule more broadly for the government.
“We look forward to pursuing our clients claims and to holding the FBI accountable,” he said.
The case involves three men from Southern California. They filed a class action lawsuit claiming the FBI spied on them and hundreds of others in a surveillance operation that began several years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The men, represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, claimed religious discrimination and violations of other rights, saying they were spied on solely because of their faith.
A lower court dismissed almost all their claims after the government said allowing the case to go forward could reveal state secrets — whom the government was investigating and why. But an appeals court reversed that decision in 2019, saying the lower court first should have privately examined the evidence the government said was state secrets.
Yassir Fazaga, one of the three plaintiffs in the case said the outcome “could have been better” but that he was glad “we still have the ability to fight for our case.” Ali Malik, another one of the plaintiffs, said he was “relieved that the Supreme Court will allow our case to continue.”
Before the Biden administration took over, the Trump administration had also urged the court to rule against the men.
The case was one of two involving state secrets that the court heard in the fall. In the other case, which the court decided Thursday, the justices also sided with the government. There, the justices ruled to dismiss a case involving a Guantanamo Bay detainee captured after the Sept. 11 attacks and tortured by the CIA abroad, who had sought information about his treatment.
Friday's case is FBI v. Fazaga, 20-828.