United States v. Weber Aircraft Corporation

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Weber Aircraft Corporation
LOCATION: Environmental Protection Agency

DOCKET NO.: 82-1616
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 465 US 792 (1984)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1984
DECIDED: Mar 20, 1984

ADVOCATES:
Samuel A. Alito, Jr. - on behalf of petitioner
Jacques E. Soiret - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

Question

Media for United States v. Weber Aircraft Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1984 in United States v. Weber Aircraft Corporation

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments first this morning in United States against Weber Aircraft Corporation.

Mr. Alito, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

This case concerns the continued existence of an important part of the Armed Forces program of aviation safety.

Specifically, the issue is whether statements made in confidence to military aviation safety investigators must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, even though those statements would be privileged in civil discovery.

When an Air Force plane is involved in an accident, two separate investigations are generally conducted.

The first is called a safety investigation and, as the name implies, its sole purpose is to prevent future accidents.

Witnesses are advised that their statements will be used exclusively for purposes of safety and will be kept confidential.

In addition, Air Force members and employees are assured by regulation that their statements will not be used against them in administrative or disciplinary proceedings.

Under present practice, the safety investigation compiles a two-part report.

The first part contains facts except for those facts derived from confidential statements.

This part of the report is disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The second part contains confidential statements as well as the findings, analysis and recommendations of the safety investigation.

This part is not disclosed.

Within the Air Force, the safety report is used, of course, for safety purposes and is distributed strictly on a need to know basis.

In addition, to the extent practicable all identifying details are removed.

At the same time, a second, separate investigation is also conducted.

This is now called an accident investigation, but at the time in question here was termed a collateral investigation.

Its purpose is to collect and preserve evidence for all purposes other than safety, for use in court-martial and administrative and judicial proceedings, in litigation and other purposes.

Statements given by witnesses to the first investigation, to the safety investigation, are not disclosed to the accident investigation, but a list of the witnesses is provided.

Therefore, the second, accident investigation will generally interview the same witnesses and is required to do so by regulation as soon as possible.

This entire report is disclosed to the public.

The other military services follow similar procedures.

For more than 20 years now since the D.C. Circuit's decision in Machin versus Zucker, statements made in confidence to military aviation safety investigators have been privileged in civil discovery, and Respondents have not challenged the validity or scope of that civil discovery privilege.

In hundreds of cases, Air Force safety--

Do they concede its validity, Mr. Alito?

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

--I don't believe they expressly concede its validity, but I don't read their briefs as challenging the availability of that.

While I have you interrupted, are we going to have to decide, whatever is the scope of the Machin privilege, whether it's valid as a matter of civil discovery law?

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

I don't believe so, Justice Brennan.

Why not?