National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson

PETITIONER:National Aeronautics and Space Administration
RESPONDENT:Robert M. Nelson, et al.
LOCATION: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

DOCKET NO.: 09-530
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 562 US 134 (2011)
GRANTED: Mar 08, 2010
ARGUED: Oct 05, 2010
DECIDED: Jan 19, 2011

Dan Stormer – for the respondents
Neal Kumar Katyal – Acting Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioners

Facts of the case

A 2004 Bush administration antiterrorism initiative extended background checks required for many government jobs to contract employees, including scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research facility operated by the California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA. Twenty-eight lab employees, who do not have security clearances and are not involved in classified or military activities, filed suit over what they considered to be overly intrusive background checks. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the background checks halted while the case continued. The divided court later declined an en banc review.


Does the government violate a federal contract employee’s constitutional right to privacy by asking her whether she has received counseling or treatment for recent illegal drug use in the past year, or by asking her references if they have any reason to believe she is unsuited to work in a federal facility?

Media for National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 05, 2010 in National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 19, 2011 in National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Candidates for Federal Civ — Civil Service have long been required to undergo a standard employment background check.

Several years ago, the Government extended this requirement to federal contract employees who require long-term access to Government facilities.

The respondents in this case who were the plaintiffs below are Government contract employees at a NASA laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

They challenged two aspects of the Government background check.

Their first challenge concerns a question on the standard form that asks employees about any treatment or counseling that they have received for recent illegal drug use.

The second concerns a series of open-ended questions on a form that the Government sends to the employees designated references.

The respondent’s claim that this inquires violate a constitutional right to informational privacy.

The Court has considered similar arguments in two other cases, Whalen versus Roe and Nixon versus Administrator of General Services both decided in 1977.

In both of those cases, the plaintiffs claimed that the Government’s collection of their personal information violated the Constitution.

This Court rejected those arguments, however, because the practices at issue were reasonable and because the information collected was subject to protection against the public disclosure.

We take the same approach in this case that the Court took in Whalen and Nixon.

We assume without deciding that the Constitution protects some right to informational privacy.

We hold, however, that the challenged portions of the Government’s background investigation do not violate such a right in this case.

These inquiries are reasonable and they further the Government’s interest in managing its internal operations and responses to the challenge, inquiries are shielded from public disclosure by the Privacy Act.

Those protections are sufficient to satisfy any privacy interest that may arguably be rooted in the Constitution.

We reversed the Court of Appeals’ contrary judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Thomas has joined.

Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.