This is not an easy read, and at 50 pages, it might not be worthy of your time, unless you really want to parse through the factors the court considers in deciding whether the 200+ year-old All Writs Act authorizes a federal judge to force a private company to engage in activities that are not only contrary to the company’s ideals and mission, but also would result in diverting the company’s resources away from commercially prudent activities. United States Magistrate Judge James Orenstein goes through every argument in meticulous fashion, but ultimately holds that the relief requested by the government wasn’t permitted under the third prong of the AWA, which allows the issuance of writs so long as they are “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.”
I conclude that in the circumstances of this case, the government’s application does not fully satisfy the statute’s threshold requirements: although the government easily satisfies the statute’s first two elements, the extraordinary relief it seeks cannot be considered “agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” In arguing to the contrary, the government posits a reading of the latter phrase so expansive – and in particular, in such tension with the doctrine of separation of powers—as to cast doubt on the AWA’s constitutionality if adopted. Moreover, I further conclude that even if the statute does apply, all three discretionary factors weigh against issuance of the requested writ, and that the Application should therefore be denied as a matter of discretion even if it is available as a matter of law.
Noting that Congress has “considered legislation that would achieve the same result but…not adopted it,” (p.1) Judge Orenstein concluded that that was enough to tip the scales in favor of Apple. In doing so, the court rejected the government’s interpretation of “agreeable to the usages and principles of law,” which was “so expansive—and in particular, in such tension with the doctrine of separation of powers—as to cast doubt on the AWA’s constitutionality.” (p.12)
The court also analyzed the discretionary factors, all of which it found weighing in favor of Apple, and not the government. Although it took quite a while to get there, in closing, Judge Orenstein reached the only logical conclusion: “Ultimately, the question to be answered in this matter, and in others like it across the country, is not whether the government should be able to force Apple to help it unlock a specific device; it is instead whether the All Writs Act resolves that issue and many others like it yet to come.” That closing seems to set the stage, almost as emphatically as the phrase “to be continued…” at the end of a film.