Today’s unanimous decision in NASA v. Nelson–see here for my oral argument recap from October–held that the government has the power to conduct full background checks despite the argument by employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab that parts of those checks violate their right to “informational privacy.”
Writing for six members of the Court, Justice Alito refused to address whether such a right actually exists, and instead assumed its existence for the sake of rejecting its application to the JPL employees’ claims. Justices Scalia and Thomas, however, refused to go along with this compromise resolution. Instead, Scalia, in a separate concurrence joined by Thomas, returned to form with a bruising critique of the Court’s “substantive due process” jurisprudence–the very jurisprudence he adopted to extend the Second Amendment to the states in last year’s oral argument and plurality opinion for McDonald v. City of Chicago.
Nevertheless, Justice Thomas wouldn’t let Scalia return to the fold without reminding Scalia of his last year’s prodigality from their bedrock principles. I’ll let Josh Blackman take it from here:
Scalia’s opinion returns to his usual antagonism towards substantive due process. Not even a single citation to McDonald. No attempt to reconcile his aberrant opinion in the famed gun case. I suppose that McDonald will be the new Gonzales v. Raich, and we should “just get over it.” (that is Scalia’s common refrain when people ask him to reconcile Raich). As recently as last week, Scalia joined a Thomas dissent from denial of cert, other than a footnote that relied on Raich. As I have written at great length, Scalia’s opinion cannot be explained here. His position is at odds with two decades of jurisprudence, and he makes no effort to explain it. While Thomas cites to McDonald, Scalia ignores it. Scalia’s acquiescence to substantive due process in McDonald cannot be reconciled with his animosity towards that “plastic” standard.
Justice Thomas wrote his own curt one paragraph concurring opinion in judgment.
“I agree with JUSTICE SCALIA that the Constitution does not protect a right to informational privacy. Ante, at 1 (opinion concurring in judgment). No provision in the Constitution mentions such a right. Cf. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558, 605–606 (2003) (THOMAS, J., dissent-ing) (“I can find neither in the Bill of Rights nor any other part of the Constitution a general right of privacy . . .” (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)). And the notion that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is a wellspring ofunenumerated rights against the Federal Government “strains credulity foreven the most casual user of words.” McDonald v. Chi-cago, 561 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (THOMAS, J., concurring inpart and concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 7).“
What does Thomas’ concurring opinion add? Thomas focuses on the fact that the due process clause does not protect unenumerated rights, suggesting that it can protect enumerated rights. Perhaps he is trying to provide cover to Scalia, who joined McDonald’s due process opinion. As I have theorized before, because the Second Amendment is actually enumerated, Scalia may find this approach palatable. I find this distinction unpersuasive. As I have argued before, whether the right is enumerated, or unenumerated, the Court still needs to rely on some nebulous notion of liberty. Thomas may be trying to explain Scalia’s opinion, where Scalia would not do so specifically. In my mind, its not effective. Regardless, not even Thomas would accede to relying on the due process clause to protect an enumerated right. To quote my good friend Mike Sacks, this concurring opinion can best be characterized as a “sucker punch.” Ouch.
The standoff continues.
The take-home from this morning’s oral arguments in NASA v. Nelson was simple: when the conservatives don’t buy into the right you’re asserting and your two most likely proponents can’t agree on how to agree with you, then you’re in trouble.
The issue was whether the Ninth Circuit erred in granting 28 employees of the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, an injunction, based on a right to “informational privacy,” against the government’s use of open-ended questions as well as queries about drug treatment histories on standard background check forms introduced in 2005.
In the early minutes of oral argument it was apparent that both Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were searching for ways to convince their colleagues to uphold the injunction. Problem was, they clashed over strategy.
Sotomayor was the first to interrupt Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal’s argument with a broad, aggressive attack on the government’s policy.
“Could you ask somebody, what’s your genetic makeup, because we don’t want people with a gene that is predisposed to cancer?” Sotomayor inquired. When Katyal tried to duck the question, she cut to the point: “So what you are saying is, there is no limit?”
Before Katyal could wriggle out of reluctantly agreeing with Sotomayor, Ginsburg jumped in. Having served with the boys on the bench much longer than Sotomayor, she thought a narrower approach necessary to win their votes.
“The only thing that’s in contention there is the question about treatment or counseling. Nothing else. So why are we talking about the universe of questions that might be asked?” It was as if Ginsburg was telling Sotomayor to tone it down for fear of losing the Court’s right flank.
But the conservatives weren’t interested in narrowness or broadness. Not yet. They wanted to know a little more about this right of “informational privacy” thing.
Almost two decades ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the erstwhile savior of unenumerated privacy rights, famously wrote that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This morning, however, Kennedy found the JPL employees’ asserted right to informational privacy troublingly “ill-defined or undefined.”
Kennedy’s comment triggered a series of queries to Katyal, who was unwilling, to the frustration of Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito, to confirm or deny whether such a right exists.
So leave it up to Chief Justice John G. Roberts to successfully execute the bait and switch. With a friendly voice, he asked if the challenged questions about a history of drug counseling were required for the good of the employee. Katyal squarely answered in the affirmative, as if he was answering his former boss, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who appeared this morning entirely sympathetic to such progressive paternalism. Big mistake.
“Whenever the government comes and says, ‘This is for your own good,’ you have to be a little suspicious,” said Roberts, eliciting reflexive laughter from the entire courtroom.
And with that comment, Scalia was left behind derisively grumbling about substantive due process as Alito and Kennedy joined Roberts in attacking on pragmatic grounds half of the Ninth Circuit’s injunction.
If during Katyal’s argument a consensus emerged against the government’s drug counseling history questions, then Pasadena lawyer Dan Stormer’s argument established a majority’s approval of the similarly enjoined open-ended questions.
Stormer maintained that these questions were inappropriate for low-level employees such as snack bar workers or bus drivers who perform no sensitive activities at JPL.
But what if a snack bar worker “has a big sign on his lawn that says, ‘I hope the space shuttle blows up?’” asked Alito in one of his signature absurd hypotheticals. When Stormer conceded that the government should know that information, Alito shot back. If open-ended questions are forbidden, he asked, then how does the government get at that information?
“Do you have to have a specific question on the form?” wondered Alito. One that, say, specifically asks, “Does this individual have a big sign on his front lawn that says, ‘I hope the space shuttle blows up?’”
Alito’s point was as funny as it was devastating.
Among the fourteen cases the Supreme Court added to its docket today, FCC v. AT&T most caught my attention. The case asks whether corporations can claim personhood so to qualify for the Freedom of Information Act’s Exemption 7(C), which exempts from mandatory disclosure records collected for law enforcement purposes when such disclosure could “reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The Third Circuit ruled that because the statute defined “person” as an “individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency,” then corporations were entitled to 7(C)’s “personal privacy” exemption. The FCC’s petition for certiorari, signed by then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan–who will be recused for this case–argued that the Third Circuit’s ruling upset a thirty-five year understanding that the “personal privacy” exemption only applied to individuals.
To bolster their case, the FCC cited then-Professor Scalia’s 1981 testimony before Congress that Exemption 7 did not protect “associational or institutional” privacy from mandatory disclosure upon request.
Although this case will ultimately turn on statutory construction, it still hearkens back to last year’s Citizens United, which established that corporations are legal persons whose independent campaign expenditures cannot be limited under the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
What makes this case even more interesting is that next Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in NASA v. Nelson, which asks whether a government employee has a right to “informational privacy” that allows him to withhold information in government background checks. Specifically at issue is whether an employee, once established he has done drugs, may then refuse to disclose if he has obtained treatment for the drug use. Justice Kagan will also recuse herself in this case.
Informational privacy is hardly a deeply established fundamental right. Even if it were, and if the Court’s conservative bloc embraced it, drug-tinged cases tend to soften the justices’ principles. In Gonzales v. Raich, Justice Scalia voted to approve Congress’s Commerce Clause power to ban the personal cultivation of medical marijuana, despite his earlier votes to restrict the Commerce Clause’s scope and later votes to cabin the power of the Necessary and Proper Clause. And in Morse v. Frederick, Chief Justice Roberts, who takes a largely robust view of the First Amendment, found a high school student’s unfurled banner reading “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” to be unprotected pro-drug speech under the Court’s First Amendment-for-students doctrines.
In contrast to AT&T, the issue in NASA is not statutory, but constitutional. Further, it is grounded in an individual’s Fifth Amendment Due Process rights, not in one’s First Amendment rights, which was the flashpoint of last year’s corporate personhood contest. Still, if the Court rejects an individual’s right to informational privacy, but embraces a corporation’s ability to withhold information under the personal privacy exemption, expect some commentators’ heads to explode.