NASA Scientists Lose Supreme Court Case on Background Checks

 The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of background checks by the government on scientists and other workers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The unanimous ruling means that NASA will now have to decide whether to continue a Bush Administration policy, on hold since 2007, to require such checks.

The decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, declares that, "Reasonable investigations of applicants and employees aid the government in ensuring the security of its facilities and in employing a competent, reliable workforce."

Now the scientists say they will wait to see what NASA will do. The ruling caps a legal battle began in 2007 when 28 scientists and engineers at JPL, which is owned by NASA but operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, filed suit against new security procedures announced by NASA. They argued that questions on forms they had to fill out relating to drug use, counseling, and "trustworthiness" were too intrusive and harmed the open environment at JPL. The researchers, who are employed by Caltech, had previously been subject to background checks, but not ones as broad, and without the protections of civil service laws that government employees enjoy.

The plaintiffs convinced an appeals court the following year that, as contract employees, they should be subject to less scrutiny than government employees who work with classified material. By the time the case reached the high court, groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (brief) and the American Civil Liberties Union (brief) had lined up behind them.

But in the end, all eight Supreme Court justices who participated disagreed. (Elena Kagan, a former solicitor general for the Obama Administration, recused herself.)

The justices rejected the argument that the Caltech workers deserved a different standard of scrutiny than civil servants. In a separate decision that agreed with the main verdict of the case, Justice Antonin Scalia said:

    Respondents claim that even though they are Government contractor employees, and even though they are working with highly expensive scientific equipment, and even though the Government is seeking only information about drug treatment and information from third parties that is standard in background checks, and even though the Government is liable for damages if that information is ever revealed, and even though NASA's Privacy Act regulations are very protective of private information, NASA's background checks are unconstitutional. Ridiculous.

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