Courts reject extensive checks

PASADENA — Scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory won another legal victory last week in their fight against a Bush-era directive to submit to more intrusive background checks after the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a 2008 injunction.

The class-action lawsuit against Homeland Security Directive 12, issued under the Bush administration in 2004, was filed in 2007 by 28 JPL employees after they were told they would have to submit to an extensive background check that could include interviews with friends, neighbors and co-workers or anyone the agency deemed important. The checks could also include questions regarding an individual’s health history and sexual orientation.

“We feel pretty good,” said Robert Nelson, one of the JPL employees who filed the lawsuit. “I first heard about the [decision] a little before noon [June 4]. I checked the Court of Appeals website to see if the report was real.”

Nelson and his colleagues filed the suit after administrators said they would have to submit to the extensive background checks, which would be above and beyond the initial checks they had to pass before getting hired.

The scientists and engineers fought back, claiming the intrusion violated their right to privacy.

“We were told [by management] at the start this was something that had no chance for success, “ Nelson said. “We are so grateful we found this magnificent team of lawyers.”

Attorneys Dan Stormer and Virginia Keeny took the case, and have been in and out of court for the past two years. The appellate decision upheld an earlier ruling that scientists “face a stark choice — either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs.”

Nelson said they have been receiving calls from employees in other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of Education, concerning the lawsuit.

“They are looking at our case as a possible shelter for [their] case,” he said.

The federal government now has 60 days from the June 4 ruling to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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