Acting on a petition submitted in July 2015 by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Rutherford Institute, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today ordered the Department of Homeland Security to, within 30 days from today, “submit to the court a schedule for the expeditious issuance of a final rule” governing the TSA’s use of virtual strip search machines or body scanners (what the TSA calls “Advanced Imaging Technology “within a reasonable time”.
The court didn’t say what it would consider “expeditious” or a “reasonable” time for the TSA to finalize rules for its use of body scanners. Nor did the court even consider what such a rule should say, or what it would take for such a rule to be Constitutional.
But as we pointed out in the comments we submitted to the TSA three years ago in this as-yet-incomplete rulemaking, any “final rule” on body scanners promulgated by the TSA would be the first and to date only publicly-disclosed definition of any aspect of what the TSA and DHS think travelers are required to do and/or prohibited from doing in order to satisfy our obligation under Federal law to “submit” to “screening” as a condition of the exercise of our right to air travel by common carrier.
Five years ago, we were one of 35 organizations that petitioned the TSA and DHS to conduct a public “rulemaking” — including notice of the proposal, and opportunity for public comment, consideration of the comments by the agency, and finally the publication of rules for what is and isn’t prohibited and/or required — before deploying or continuing to deploy as-though-naked body imaging machines in airports.
In 2011, in response to a lawsuit brought by one of the other petitioners, EPIC, the D.C. Circuit court ordered the DHS to conduct such a rulemaking. The DHS dragged its feet, but under pressure from the Coiurt, finally published proposed (vague and unconstitutional) rules for body scanners in 2013. Basically, the DHS proposed rules that would require travelers to submit to whatever “imaging technology” the TSA chooses to use.
The Identity Project and more than 5000 other organizations and individuals submitted comments to the DHS, the overwhelming majority of which opposed the proposed rules, the TSA’s use of virtual strip-search machines, and the TSA practices of groping travelers including those who “opt out” of the imaging machines.
In response to the latest lawsuit by CEI, the DHS says that it is still working diligently, three years later, to read, analyze, and respond to the public comments and prepare a (possibly revised) final rule.
Today, the Court declined (for now, at least) to set a deadline for the DHS to stop dragging its feet and publish final rules for the body scanners. But the Court ordered the DHS to come up with a timeline of specific dates by which it intends to do so. Once the DHS gives dates certain to the Court, it will risk sanctions for contempt if it fails to meet those deadlines without an explanation satisfactory to the Court.
It’s a small but significant step toward subjecting the TSA, for the first time, to the rule of law.