Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson

PETITIONER: Federal Bureau of Investigation
RESPONDENT: Abramson
LOCATION: Turner Turnpike

DOCKET NO.: 80-1735
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 456 US 615 (1982)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1982
DECIDED: May 24, 1982

ADVOCATES:
Kenneth Steven Geller - on behalf of the Petitioners
Sharon T. Nelson - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1982 in Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others against Howard S. Abramson.

Mr. Geller, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This is a Freedom of Information Act case here on writ of certiorari to the District of Columbia circuit.

At issue is Exemption 7 of the FOIA which exempts from mandatory disclosure investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes to the extent that production of such records would cause one of six discrete harms listed by Congress in Exemption 7.

The question presented is whether records in the FBI's law enforcement files that satisfy Exemption 7, and hence that are exempt from mandatory disclosure, lose that exempt status when they are later summarized into another FBI document that was not compiled for purposes of law enforcement.

And the documents involved in this case are so-called name check summaries concerning eleven individuals that were prepared by the FBI in October 1969 in response to a request by John Ehrlichman, who was then the counsel to the President.

The FBI frequently prepares name check summaries at the request of the White House, generally when someone is being considered for a presidential appointment or for an invitation to a White House function.

When the FBI got the White House request in this case, it, as it did in other name check requests, checked its law enforcement records and wrote a short memorandum summarizing its file information about each of the eleven individuals.

In the case of a few of the individuals the FBI files included a name check summary that had been prepared in response to an earlier White House request.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Mr. Geller, would you briefly define what a name check is?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Yes.

Harry A. Blackmun:

I think I know, but I'd like to have you tell me.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

A number of agencies in the federal government, including the White House, when they need certain information for perfectly lawful purposes about a particular individual, they will ask the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check its files and run what is called a name check on that individual and notify the agency of anything pertinent that they may have found.

And as I said, the White House frequently would send over name check requests to the FBI; for example, when the President was thinking of naming somebody to a presidential appointment or someone was being considered for an invitation to a White House function, there would have to be some security checks and other things.

Harry A. Blackmun:

But I ask again, what is it?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

It is a memorandum summarizing information in the FBI's files in the individual's case.

Perhaps the facts of this case are a trifle confusing.

It might well benefit the Court at this point--

Byron R. White:

You mean the FBI would respond only, with respect to the individual, only with respect to what it found in its own files?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

--That's right.

They would not do a separate investigation.

They would simply check their files for that person and write a memorandum explaining--

Warren E. Burger:

Do they not check their files generally to see whether there are any arrest records of the person?

Isn't that the starting point of a name check?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

--Yes.

That would be in their file if they had that information.

Byron R. White:

If they had it.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

They would not go about--

Byron R. White:

But they do not send out a nationwide--