On Wednesday, the Guardian broke the story that the National Security Agency is “currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon … under a top secret court order issued in April.” The order, issued by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on April 25, gives the NSA the authority to collect Verizon phone records “on an ongoing daily basis thereafter for the duration of this Order,” ending on July 19, when it must be renewed. The judge that issued the most recent order? Roger Vinson, of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
Looking further into Vinson’s record, a lack of consistency arises that muddles his views on the role and authority of the federal government. With this recent order, Vinson comes off as a hypocrite, going against previous rulings that find limits to the federal government’s power.
Vinson served on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from May 4, 2006 until May 3, 2013. Former President Ronald Regan originally nominated him as a federal judge in 1983, and he served as chief judge of his district court from 1997 to 2004. Vinson has been active for over two decades, and this isn’t the first time he’s garnered media attention.
Most notably, in 2011 Vinson ruled that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. His ruling was particularly damning because it refused to sever the individual mandate from the rest of the bill, thus deeming the entire law unconstitutional. And as the New Republic notes, Vinson is also the judge that coined the “broccoli argument” against the Affordable Care Act, asking if Congress could “mandate everybody has to buy a certain amount of broccoli” because of the vegetable’s health benefits, an argument that came up again when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the ACA.
The ruling did not help Vinson’s popularity, especially with the left. ThinkProgress branded him a “Tea Party Judge,” citing his ruling’s concurrent language with a brief filed by the Family Research Council, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center deems a hate group. Vinson’s ACA decision also brought to light his ruling that the free military medical care guaranteed by recruiters for veterans serving at least 20 years was invalid, doing him no favors with the military community.
What’s troubling is the divergence between Vinson’s decisions. How does he rectify the differences in ruling that it is unconstitutional for the federal government mandate an individual purchase health care insurance, and an order that gives the very same federal government the authority to collect U.S. citizens’ phone records? The two don’t agree with each other. Either Vinson believes in the authority of the government over its citizens, or he doesn’t. If the executive branch and Congress cannot mandate citizens’ obtain insurance, as Vinson believed just two years ago, how is it constitutional for the NSA to essentially spy on its citizens?
Even if the Fisa court order traces back to former President George W. Bush’s administration, it’s still the most recent order with Vinson’s name on it. It’s an order that gives immeasurable authority to the federal government, something he ruled against a short while ago. This is yet another black mark for Vinson, whose record as a federal judge was already on shaky ground.