High court says NASA background checks can continue

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled today that background checks of low-risk employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California can continue.

The high court overturned a lower court decision that had stopped the space agency's investigations of the contract workers.

The workers claimed NASA was invading their privacy by requiring the investigations, which included probes into medical records and questioning of friends about everything from their finances to their sex lives.

If they didn't agree to the checks, the contract employees were to be barred from the laboratory grounds and fired.

Lower courts had said the questions threatened the rights of workers, including a constitutional right to informational privacy. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority in NASA v. Nelson that the government's interests as “employer and proprietor,” and the rules against unauthorized disclosure of the information, outweigh the privacy concerns.

In a concurrence joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with the outcome of the case, but wrote that because no constitutional right to informational privacy exists, the high court had no reason to consider whether the government is in violation of it.