U.S. Supreme Court Hears Corporate Privacy Case

20 January 2011

The argument that corporations have a right of personal privacy under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act was not received well by the U.S. Supreme Court during oral argument Jan. 19, according to virtually all reports.

According to the New York Times account, “The claim that corporations have personal privacy rights met with widespread skepticism on Wednesday during a lively Supreme Court argument.”

Here’s a link to the transcript.

The justices are reviewing a lower court ruling, Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., No. 09-1279, which supported AT&T claim that documents sought from the agency by a trade association representing competitors is protected by the exemption that protects  information that “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (See previous Freedominfo.org report.)

Similarly, the Washington Post reported:

It might be an understatement to say the Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed skeptical that corporations have “personal privacy” rights that would prevent the government from releasing documents about them.

At times, the justices were almost mocking in their questions.

And USA Today said, “Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared poised to reject AT&T’s arguments that corporations may claim a “personal privacy” exemption when the government seeks to release files involving them under the Freedom of Information Act.”

One interesting exchange revealed a difference in views on how broadly to interpret FOIA exemptions. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Usually in Freedom of Information Act cases, the government is on the opposite side, fighting to withhold documents from the public. That put the government’s lawyer, Anthony Yang, in the awkward position of trying to stop the justices from ruling too expansively in the government’s favor.

He objected when Justice Sonia Sotomayor observing the law’s intent to promote “full disclosure,” said that FOIA exceptions should be given their “narrowest meaning.”

“The government wants to abandon the principle that we’ve set forth in our cases that exceptions to FOIA are to be narrowly construed?” said Justice Antonin Scalia.

“We do not embrace that principle,” Mr. Yang said.

“Even though we did?” asked Justice Scalia.

“The government has broader interests beyond a single case,” said Mr. Yang, who in a separate case last month urged the justices to let the government define the exception for “personnel rules and practices” broadly enough to withhold a map from public disclosure.

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