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Supreme Court justices' cellphone privacy ruling likely to have broad impact

| Sunday, July 20, 2014, 8:15 p.m.
FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2010 file photo, Chief Justice John Roberts is seen during the group portrait at the Supreme Court Building in Washington. A historic Supreme Court term ended with a flourish of major rulings that marked a bitter defeat for racial minorities and a groundbreaking victory for gay rights, all in the space of a day. The justices struck down parts of two federal laws _ the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act _ that were passed with huge bipartisan majorities of Congress. Yet, only one justice at the center of this conservative-leaning court, Anthony Kennedy, was on the winning side both times. Kennedy joined the four more conservative justices on voting rights and he was with his liberal colleagues in the gay marriage case. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON — Privacy rights advocates are hoping the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling last month on cellphone privacy will have a broad impact on the clash between privacy and technology — perhaps even leading to decisions striking down the government's post-9/11 surveillance of Americans' telephone records.

The justices' 9-0 ruling that police need a warrant to search a cellphone — issued amid a flurry of late June decisions on religious liberty, abortion protests and presidential powers — was arguably the most significant of the 2013-14 term.

Unlike cases decided by narrow 5-4 margins or those in which justices differed over the reasoning, Chief Justice John Roberts' cellphone opinion was notable for “the emphatic, emphatic message from the court that digital is different,” said Jeffrey Fisher, the Stanford University law professor who successfully argued one of the two cellphone cases.

Theodore Simon, incoming president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is devoting his first column in the group's monthly magazine to the potential impact on precedents. He foresees “a sea change in how one would look at future cases that in any way involve searches and seizures, and where there is the possibility of the revelation of significant personal data.”

The ruling could affect cases involving the use of drones to collect large amounts of digital data. “Drones aren't like the ever-present policeman with binoculars in a helicopter,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law.

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