In updates filed with Federal courts in at least two pending challenges to US government “no-fly” orders, lawyers for the government have revealed plans for changes to the internal procedures administrative agencies use in deciding who they “allow” to fly — and who they don’t.
While these changes look like cosmetic but inadequate improvements, they actually include an obscure but much more significant change designed to make it harder for people on the no-fly list to get the factual basis (if any) for the decision to put them on the list reviewed by a judge.
By shifting official responsibility for administrative no-fly decisions from the FBI to the TSA, the government hopes to bring those decisions fully within the scope of a special Federal jurisdictional law, 49 U.S.C. § 46110, which is designed to preclude any effective judicial review of TSA decisions — but which doesn’t apply to decisions (nominally) made by the FBI or other agencies outside the DHS.
This law allows TSA administrative orders to be reviewed only by Courts of Appeal (which have no ability to conduct trials or fact-finding), on the basis of the “administrative record” supplied to the Court of Appeals by the TSA itself. The Court of Appeals is forbidden to second-guess the TSA’s fact-finding, even if it was made through a secret and one-sided internal process: “Findings of fact by the Secretary, Under Secretary, or Administrator, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive.” As long as there is substantial evidence in the record constructed by the TSA to justify its actions, the Court of Appeals is forbidden to consider the weight of contrary evidence, even if it is also in the record. And the TSA is free to decide that evidence submitted by anyone on the no-fly list is, for that very reason, not credible.
No-fly cases have been considered by District Courts, and one of them has gone to trial, only because the FBI (as the agency nominally responsible for the inter-agency Terrorist Screening Center) has been declared by both TSA and FBI to be the agency officially responsible for no-fly decisions. When FBI decisions are challenged by people who claim their rights have been violated, those decisions are reviewed in the normal manner by District Courts that can conduct trials, hear testimony, receive evidence, and make their own findings of fact — without being required to rely exclusively on self-serving submissions by the FBI itself.