PORTLAND — To federal officials, being on the no-fly list isn't such a big deal. Sure, you can't board a plane, but options abound, government lawyers said at a hearing Friday.
Sick relative? Take a boat. New baby in the family? Perhaps a train.
A federal judge in Portland said that's akin to saying that people might as well take a rocket ship or a Star Trek transporter. "Their argument deserves more credit than that," said U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown, who took a dim view of the U.S. government's contention that its no-fly list isn't effectively a ban on all travel.
Thirteen people are suing the federal government, arguing that their placement on the no-fly list deprives them of a fundamental liberty to travel by air.
Friday's arguments were the first hearing on the merits of the case, which dates to 2010. The plaintiffs, four of them U.S. military veterans, are suing to be either removed from the list or told why they are on it.
After the lawsuit was filed, the case moved between district and appellate courts before a decision last summer by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put the lawsuit back under Brown's jurisdiction.
The question of air travel as a right versus a convenience is central to determining whether the men have been deprived of their liberty, as they argue they have, observers say.
Brown said that without placement on the no-fly list, people can get on airplanes, and she asked Justice Department attorney Scott Risner how he can argue that such circumstances imply that air travel isn't, inherently, a right.
"Everyone has a right to go to the airport and board an aircraft," she said. "How does that argument you're making (conform) to reality?"
The no-fly list, a well-protected government secret, decides who may fly from U.S. airports. It is also, according to testimony, shared with operators of passenger ships, as well as 22 other countries.