Julie Rooney ’18 wins Scribes Law-Review Award for VLR Note addressing privacy law

Julie Rooney ’18 has won the 2018 Scribes Law-Review Award. Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers, has presented the annual award for the best student writing in a law review or journal since 1987. Rooney’s Note, “Going Postal: Analyzing the Abuse of Mail Covers Under the Fourth Amendment,” was published in the Vanderbilt Law Review in October 2017.

Rooney, who currently serves as a Notes Editor of the Law Review, decided to focus on the U.S. Postal Service’s Mail Covers Program after reading an article about the longstanding surveillance program, through which the government records information from the outside of mail pieces, in the New York Times. Postal inspectors and external law enforcement authorities investigating criminal activity can request access to information collected through this program, which has been subject to few court challenges because so few people are aware that their information is routinely collected and made available to law enforcement on demand.

“The Supreme Court has never taken up a mail cover challenge,” she said. “But under any theory of Fourth Amendment Law, the constitutionality of the mail covers program is precarious at best.”

Rooney appreciates the irony that, in an age where most people are concerned about surveillance of electronic communications such as email, texts and Facebook posts, they are unaware that the U.S. government has monitored the covers of their paper mail for decades. “Most people don’t know about this program, and it’s existed since at least the mid-19th century,” Rooney said. “Recent technological innovations have allowed the postal service to photograph and record the outside of each of the roughly 160 billion mail parcels it handles each year. Government authorities can uncover a startlingly accurate picture of citizens’ daily lives by examining mail covers, and all of this surveillance occurs without any judicial oversight.”

Her Note provides a brief history of the program, examines cases challenging it, and proposes possible reforms both for the mail covers program and generally to protect privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. “The mail covers program laid the groundwork for most modern surveillance initiatives. While mass surveillance has undeniable security benefits in a world plagued by terrorism and cyber warfare, the right to privacy is essential to a free society,” Rooney said. “The Fourth Amendment was enacted to protect American citizens from laws that allowed British officers to enter and search homes without warrants. The point is that privacy is not the opposite of security–it’s the prerequisite.”

“The mail cover program is analogous to the metadata program exposed by Edward Snowden. Julie does a terrific job explaining why it is a highly questionable practice under the Fourth Amendment in her Note,” said Christopher Slobogin, the Milton R. Underwood Chair in Law and director of Vanderbilt’s Criminal Justice Program, whose scholarship has addressed government surveillance and Fourth Amendment rights.

Rooney plans to join Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison in New York after graduation.

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