Open Government: A State’s Rights Issue, or More?

The Atlantic takes an interesting look at the state FOI case in front of the Supremes:

A lot of American constitutional law involves the tension between “this land is your land” on the one hand and “you’re not from around here, are you?” on the other.

McBurney v. Youngwhich will be argued Wednesday in front of the Supreme Court, is a great example. The issue in McBurney is whether a state can set up an “open records” system that benefits only its own residents, while denying access to outsiders. As an issue, it’s less exciting than gay marriage, affirmative action, or the Voting Rights Act. But it has practical implications for anyone who owns or wants to own property in another state, who does business in more than one state, or who has moved recently from one state to another.

We take access to government records almost for granted. In fact, the challengers in McBurney argue that, because of its importance for business and daily life, such access has become a basic building block both of national citizenship and of interstate commerce. Virginia, however, argues that records access is simply a matter of local concern, like voting.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the country underwent a quiet revolution in open government. In 1966, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and all 50 states — those, that is, that didn’t already have “sunshine laws” — followed suit. Those laws are now a key part of politics, news-gathering, and business. They allow a requester to demand governmental records for any reason, and they require government to furnish copies without an excessive charge. FOIA requests are used to expose governmental wrongdoing, provide cheap discovery in litigation, fuel large-scale journalistic investigations, create multi-state research surveys, and obtain detailed data that can be mined, exploited, and sold.

Most states have opened their records to anyone who asks. However, Virginia and Tennessee extend the guarantee only to those within their borders. (Some other states have ambiguous laws providing access to every “citizen,” which could mean state citizen or federal. Delaware limited access to in-staters until the Third Circuit struck that requirement down in 2006.) The challengers argue that the “citizen only” laws conflict with two provisions of the Constitution. One is the “privileges and immunities” clause of Article IV; the other is the so-called “dormant commerce clause,” which courts have deduced from Congress’s power to regulate commerce “among the several states.”

Much more here.

The Supremes Take a Rare State FOI Case…

Tony Mauro’s excellent synopsis

United State Supreme Court Building

United State Supreme Court Building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

does a nice job of underscoring the stakes here, in which the High Court takes up Virginia’s “residents-only” FOI clause:

The Supreme Court agreed on Oct. 5 to review a Virginia case that could put a stop to the increasing balkanization of state freedom-of-information laws.

At issue in McBurney v. Young is a provision of the Virginia FOI law that limits access to state documents under the law to Virginia residents — though it makes an exception for out-of-state news outlets that circulate or broadcast within the commonwealth. A growing number of other states, including Arkansas, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Georgia, have similar provisions or policies restricting access to state residents only.

News organizations and good-government groups have joined the case to make a strong argument that the law impedes reporting and public accountability. But they, the plaintiffs and other participants in the case have also framed the law as an infringement on the national “information industry” — potentially a winning argument before a pro-business Court.

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Ding Dong, The Concept of Corporate Personal Privacy is Dead!

Elena Kagan and John Roberts in front of Supre...

Image by TalkMediaNews via Flickr

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that corporations may not claim a “personal privacy” exemption when the U.S. government wants to release files involving them under the Freedom of Information Act.

The high court reversed that in an 8-0 decision. The new ninth justice, Elena Kagan, a former U.S. solicitor general, did not participate.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized that, ” ‘Personal’ ordinarily refers to individuals. We do not usually speak of personal characteristics, personal effects, personal correspondence, personal influence or personal tragedy as referring to corporations or other artificial entities.”

The chief justice acknowledged that “adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns but not always” and cited as examples “corn” and “corny,” and “crank” and “cranky.”

More broadly, Roberts said that when it comes to the word “personal,” little support exists, even in the law, for the notion that it refers to corporations.

He closed the decision against the telecommunications giant with a bit of levity: “We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.”

We’ll keep the commentary coming as it emerges, as this is a major FOIA development.

More coverage here and here.

 

 

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