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Supreme Court weighs need for background checks for NASA scientists

Top scientists at a NASA lab say government background checks aren't necessary and violate their right to privacy. At a Supreme Court hearing Tuesday, justices questioned their position.

By Staff writer / October 5, 2010

NASA senior research scientist Robert Nelson, shown Sept. 29 outside the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., is party to a suit against the US government challenging background checks of JPL workers. The US Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Oct. 5.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

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Washington

The lawyer for a group of top scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California encountered a skeptical bench on Tuesday as he urged the US Supreme Court to declare that open-ended government background investigations violate his clients’ right to privacy.

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Pasadena lawyer Dan Stormer told the high court that government contractors like his clients, who perform “low-risk” work, should not have to face intrusive questioning about drug treatment or counseling simply to qualify for a government-issued ID badge.

At issue in the case is whether the government violates the JPL workers’ constitutional right to informational privacy when they are told that they must agree to answer all the government’s questions or lose their jobs.

In addition to the usual identifying information, the questionnaires sought details of any illegal drug use in the past year and any involvement in drug treatment or counseling programs.

The process also authorized investigators to ask neighbors and others for adverse information about violations of the law, financial integrity, drug or alcohol abuse, mental or emotional stability, general behavior, or other matters.

A group of 28 scientists, engineers, and administrators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory filed a lawsuit against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration charging that the agency’s new background investigation requirements violated their constitutional right to keep certain intimate details of their lives free from government scrutiny.

A federal judge threw the case out, but the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court granted a preliminary injunction, blocking the background checks pending the outcome of the case.

At the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal told the justices that background checks are a standard way of doing business. “These checks have been going on for millions of employees,” he said.

Federal civil service employees have faced background checks since 1953. The checks were expanded to federal contractors in 2005.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is run by employees of the California Institute of Technology. Although it is a NASA facility, its workers aren’t federal employees, but rather are contractors.

Scientists describe JPL as a campus-like environment. No one is performing classified or top secret research. And while there are armed guards at the entrance, there had been no background check requirement since JPL opened in 1958. Many of the suing scientists have been working successfully at JPL for 20 years or more and object to the sudden intrusion into their private lives.

Mr. Stormer said the Constitution prevents the government from eliciting intimate details of someone’s life unless it can first demonstrate a legitimate state interest justifying the intrusion. Even then, he said, any intrusion must be narrowly tailored.

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