Miller Lecture, Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice Stevens: Data Collection ‘Price We Pay’

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens weighed in on the government’s storing of telephone metadata, calling it the price society pays, during the 53rd Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture at Georgia State University College of Law on April 16.

Justice Stevens, who retired in 2010, says the government’s practice of collecting, storing and using phone data does not violate the Fourth Amendment, citing the 1979 case, Smith v. Maryland. In that case, the Court ruled the Constitution does not require police to obtain a search warrant to authorize the installation of electronic devices to record telephone numbers dialed from a suspect’s telephone.

“I remain persuaded that the Smith case was correctly decided in 1979 and that it supports the conclusion that the preservation and use of records identifying the parties to telephone conversations does not violate the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Stevens says. “Whether the database provides benefits that are justified by its cost is an issue for others to debate.”

On April 7, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records.

Justice Stevens says restrictions on access would only “impair its usefulness. The introduction of a probable cause requirement might well frustrate critical investigations of suspicious activity.”

Drawing upon his experiences as a Naval intelligence officer during World War II, Justice Stevens says inferences drawn from the collected data are “far less reliable or informative than intelligence gained by reading the texts of the messages themselves.

“The fact that a new device, such as an automobile or a cell phone, may generate routine activities or new rules that give the public and the police access to information that a user of that device would prefer not to disclose is not a sufficient justification for imposing a warrant requirement as a precondition to police access that information,” Justice Stevens says. “It is part of the price that society pays for the benefits that the new device creates.”

Following the lecture, the retired justice met with Georgia State Law students for a question and answer session moderated by one of his former clerks, Assistant Professor of Law Lauren Sudeall Lucas.

His best advice for new lawyers: admit you don’t know it all. “When you get into practice, don’t try and pretend you know all the answers just because you’re a lawyer. Don’t bend the rules. Be a person of integrity,” Justice Stevens says.

The Henry J. Miller Distinguished Lecture Series is supported by the Charles Loridans Foundation Inc. and named for Henry J. Miller, a partner in the law firm of Alston & Bird for more than 50 years. Miller’s legacy continues to live in his role as mentor to generations of Atlanta’s professional community.

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