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High court rules in case of ‘privacy’
Protection not for corporations
The Supreme Court in separate decisions Tuesday gave victories to veterans and proponents of open government.
In an 8-0 ruling, the high court said protections in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against disclosure of law enforcement information on the grounds it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy “does not extend to corporations.”
The high court’s ruling overturns a lower-court decision that said documents related to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation of AT&T could be kept secret because their release would violate the company’s “personal privacy.”
The case stems from the telecommunications giant reporting to the FCC in 2004 it had overcharged the government as part of a program to improve telecommunications services in public schools. After an FCC investigation, AT&T agreed to pay the government $500,000 and implement a plan to ensure greater compliance with the school program, according to court records.
CompTel, a trade association that, according to court records, represented some of AT&T’s competitors, filed a FOIA request seeking FCC documents related to the investigation. The FCC said certain records were legally exempt from release because they contained trade secrets and personal information regarding staff and contractors, but did order the release of many others.
AT&T challenged the release of any documents, arguing in a lawsuit that because the FOIA includes corporations as part of its definition of “person,” the law’s provision exempting the release of information that would violate “personal privacy” should also apply to corporations.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed; the Supreme Court did not.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that AT&T’s argument linking the definition of “person” to “personal privacy” fell short because “two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation.”
Using the word “golden” as an example, he wrote that “golden cup” refers to a cup made of gold, while a golden boy” is someone “charming, lucky and talented.” A “golden opportunity,” on the other hand, “is one not to be missed.”
” ‘Personal’ in the phrase ‘personal privacy’ conveys more than just ‘of a person,’ ” he wrote. “It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns - not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.”
Chief Justice Roberts ended the decision with a quip: “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”
Justice Elena Kagan, previously Solicitor General, did not take part in the case as her former office represented the FCC in the case. The FCC appealed the third circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court.
In a second decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a denial of benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims even if a veteran misses the 120-day deadline to file such a claim. The court ruled 8-0, without Justice Kagan taking part.
In the case, Korean War veteran David Henderson, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and deemed 100 percent disabled, was denied a 1992 request to the VA for additional in-home care. Henderson, who died in October, missed by about two weeks the 120-day deadline to appeal that decision to the appeals court, which, as a result, refused to hear the case.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that the purpose of the system involving the VA and veterans court is to work with veterans to provide the services they need: “Rigid jurisdictional treatment of the 120-day period for filing a notice of appeal in the veterans court would clash sharply with this scheme.”
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About the Author
Ben Conery is a member of the investigative team covering the Supreme Court and legal affairs. Prior to coming to The Washington Times in 2008, Mr. Conery covered criminal justice and legal affairs for daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He was a 2006 recipient of the New England Newspaper Association’s Publick Occurrences Award for a series of articles about ...
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