WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) A mandatory questionnaire
for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees is not only
reasonable in light of the federal government's interests but subject to
substantial protections against disclosure, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this
Jan. 19, reversing an appellate court ruling that allowed the employees to
pursue privacy claims (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, et al.
v. Robert M. Nelson, et al., No. 09-530, U.S. Sup.; See October 2010, Page
"The questions respondents challenge are part of a
standard background check of the sort used by millions of private employers.
The Government has been conducting employment investigations since the
Republic's earliest days, and the President has had statutory authority to
assess an applicant's fitness for the civil service since 1871. Standard
background investigations similar to those at issue became mandatory for
federal civil-service candidates in 1953, and the investigations challenged
here arose from a decision to extend that requirement to federal contract
employees. This history shows that the Government has an interest in
conducting basic background checks in order to ensure the security of its
facilities and to employ a competent, reliable workforce to carry out the
people's business. The interest is not diminished by the fact that
respondents are contract employees. There are no meaningful distinctions
in the duties of NASA's civil-service and contractor employees, especially at
JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory], where contract employees do work that
is critical to NASA's mission and that is funded with a multibillion dollar
taxpayer investment," Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. wrote for the court.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M.
Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined in
the opinion. Justice Antonin Scalia filed an opinion concurring in the
judgment. Justice Clarence Thomas joined in Justice Scalia's opinion and
filed a separate opinion of his own concurring in the judgment. Justice
Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Twenty-eight employees of JPL sued NASA, the director of
NASA, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the secretary of Commerce and the
California Institute of Technology after they were required to complete a
questionnaire seeking personal information, including a question about any
counseling they may have received, as well as a waiver for release of
information from schools, residential management agents, employers, criminal
justice agencies, retail business establishments and other sources.
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of
California rejected the claims, and the employees appealed. The Ninth
Circuit granted an injunction in the case and in January 2009 reversed the
District Court's ruling except with regard to the employees' Fourth Amendment
claims. However, the Ninth Circuit panel vacated its January 2009 ruling
and issued a new opinion in June 2009, reaching essentially the same conclusion
allowing the employees to proceed with their informational privacy
claims. NASA appealed to the high court.
[Editor's Note: Full coverage will be in the
February issue. In the meantime, the opinion is available at www.mealeysonline.com or
by calling the Customer Support Department at 1-800-833-9844. Document
#73-110211-001Z. For all of your legal news needs, please visit www.lexisnexis.com/mealeys.]
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