A federal judge in New York ruled today Apple does not have to unlock an iPhone in a drug probe. The ruling will ultimately influence the outcome of a battle waged by the Justice Department against the tech company in the San Bernardino case.

The federal government has cited the All Writs Act from the 18th century to force Apple to unlock two phones linked to the alleged San Bernardino killers.

“The government has failed to establish” that the legislation permits it to compel Apple to provide access to data stored on the phones, US Magistrate Judge James Orenstein wrote.

“After reviewing the facts in the record and the parties’ arguments, I conclude that none of those factors justifies imposing on Apple the obligation to assist the government’s investigation against its will.”

In addition, according to Orenstein, allowing the FBI to unlock the phones “would betray our constitutional heritage and our people’s claim to democratic governance for a judge to pretend that our Founders already had that debate, and ended it, in 1789.”

Apple has argued that Congress should decide the matter, not the courts.

Orenstein wrote:

It is also clear that the government has made the considered decision that it is better off securing such crypto-legislative authority from the courts (in proceedings that had always been, at the time it filed the instant Application, shielded from public scrutiny) rather than taking the chance that open legislative debate might produce a result less to its liking.

The Justice Department released a statement following the ruling:

We are disappointed in the Magistrate’s ruling and plan to ask the District Judge to review the matter in the coming days. As our prior court filings make clear, Apple expressly agreed to assist the government in accessing the data on this iPhone — as it had many times before in similar circumstances — and only changed course when the government’s application for assistance was made public by the court. This phone may contain evidence that will assist us in an active criminal investigation and we will continue to use the judicial system in our attempt to obtain it.


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