At this point, it’s not clear who first authored the order that allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect the telephone records of millions of U.S. Verizon customers. According to The Washington Post, “the order appears to be a routine renewal of a similar order first issued … in 2006.” But the most recent order was signed by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson. And the more you learn about him, the more it makes sense that he would authorize such a sweeping program.
Vinson—to some, a “Tea Party judge”—is a Reagan appointee and former Navy lieutenant who briefly came into the media consciousness in 2011 when he struck down Obamacare in its entirety from his seat in Florida. His much-touted Obamacare ruling was basically meaningless, with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) being weighed by the Supreme Court, but still caused a stir because of its sweeping rejection of the new law—Medicare discounts and all. (This was in the days when severability—the legally sound argument that portions of the law should still stand even if the mandate were struck down—was still a hot topic). In his opinion, Vinson also lifted language straight from a Family Research Council primer on the ACA, to explain why the government had no right to penalize inaction. He was also the source of the infamous broccoli meme—“If they decided that everybody needs to eat broccoli because broccoli is healthy they could mandate that everybody has to buy a certain amount of broccoli each week”—which followed Obamacare all the way up to the Supreme Court.
But this was not the first time that Vinson issued some strange or questionable verdicts. In his first major case as a judge, in 1985, a jury found two couples guilty of planning to bomb three Florida abortion clinics—the men for bomb-making, and the women for conspiracy. On his orders, the four were freed on bond for a month before being sentenced, the men to prison and the women to probation.
Vinson is also rather despised among veterans for ruling in 1998 that the government did not need to fulfill promises first made in the 1940s and ’50s to provide health care for life to service members who had completed 20 years of service. (The decision also voided the promise to provide health care to the members’ families.) Vinson wrote that since military recruiters didn’t have the authority to make binding contracts on behalf of the government, “relief for the plaintiffs must come from Congress and not from the Judiciary.”
A redeeming feature: He is moderate on drug sentencing, which makes up the bulk of his courtroom activities. And “outside court,” reported the Huffington Post, “Vinson is known for his love of the flowering camellia tree. He is a longtime member of the Pensacola Camellia Club and is a former president of the American Camellia Society.”
Still, on balance, his is not an admirable track record. The court order that the Guardian obtained continues a secret program begun under the Bush administration that allows the government to collect exactly the kind of “metadata” that privacy advocates warn constitutes a major privacy breach.
Molly Redden is a staff writer for The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.