Federal court ruling against NSA phone surveillance isn't quite what it seems

A federal district court judge in Washington DC issued a preliminary injunction today in a case regarding the NSA's practice of collecting phone call metadata. In doing so, Judge Richard Leon essentially prohibited the NSA from recording the metadata of the folks who filed the lawsuit, holding that the NSA's actions likely violate the fourth amendment of the US Constitution -- the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The case was originally filed in June by five people who are customers of either Verizon, AT&T or Sprint in the wake of Edward Snowden's NSA spying revelations. And today's ruling has been hailed by some as a huge blow against the NSA in its fight to continue the surveillance practices it claims are authorized under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

There's a problem with that narrative, however. It's misleading, and the ruling's importance has been overstated. In reality, the ruling just tells us Judge Leon's view of the case given the information he currently has. (A view that is, admittedly, overwhelmingly skeptical of the legality of the NSA's practices and current case law regarding fourth amendment violations.) It does not change the law, the ruling is not final in nature. In fact, in issuing the ruling, Judge Leon removed any immediate legal force of his decision when he stayed the injunction (meaning that the NSA can go about its business as usual if it so chooses) pending appeal. So, not only does the injunction not yet take effect, it might not ever take effect if the appellate court disagrees with Judge Leon's reasoning. Furthermore, the effect of a preliminary injunction only lasts as long as the case does -- so should the trial result in a verdict that the NSA did not violate the constitution, any reasoning given to the contrary in a preliminary injunction ruling is essentially rendered moot.

So, while it seems clear that Judge Leon will be looking upon the NSA's data collection policies with great interest and some scorn, his decision is not a major blow against the government. That blow may be coming, and Judge Leon may be the among those to deal it. He just didn't do so today.