Judge Blocks Contempt Hearing for Verizon in Phone Records Case

BANGOR, Maine -- A federal judge Thursday blocked state regulators from going ahead with a contempt hearing for Verizon, ruling that national security considerations outweighed the state's interest in speedy resolution of a complaint by customers.

The preliminary injunction forced cancellation of the Public Utilities Commission hearing that had been set for Friday in Augusta to force the telecommunications giant to say whether it provided customer call records to the government without a warrant.

In his 24-page order, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock said the hearing was not the appropriate place to air the dispute.

"The federal court, not the PUC hearing room, is the proper forum to resolve the opposing positions of the federal and state governments," he wrote. "Moreover, in this controversy, Verizon is a surrogate for the position of the federal government and it would be profoundly unfair to punish Verizon for asserting a legal position mandated by the federal government."

Woodcock said the only hardship that the PUC would suffer from the injunction would be to face some delay in resolving the multi-citizen complaint that triggered the federal lawsuit.

By contrast, he wrote, "the revelation of sensitive information pertaining to national security is a manifest hardship to the United States if the injunction were denied."

The dispute before the judge was an outgrowth of a complaint filed by Verizon customers last May. Last week, the PUC said it would begin contempt proceedings against Verizon for failure to comply with an order last August that requires an official of the company to swear under oath that its previous statements regarding the National Security Agency's alleged surveillance were true.

PUC spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the commission was "obviously disappointed" at the ruling. "We're still reviewing it, and tomorrow we're going to discuss our options with the Attorney General's Office."

Shenna Bellows of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which had backed the agency's stance, described the judge's ruling as a "temporary setback."

"The Maine Civil Liberties Union is committed to carrying this as far as we need to go to defend Mainers' privacy," she said.

A spokesman for Verizon, which had backed the U.S. Justice Department suit to stop the contempt hearing, could not be reached immediately for comment. The company had argued that it had been unfairly placed in the middle of a dispute between the state and federal governments. Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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