Ruling OKs JPL background checks

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday to allow sweeping background checks of JPL scientists and other government contract workers, ruling that privacy rights do not prevent officials from digging into employees' medical, financial and sexual histories.

Research scientist Robert Nelson and 27 other JPL scientists who do not have access to classified material had won an injunction in U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that prevented NASA from implementing the procedures, developed by the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

"We're very disappointed that the court ruled against us, and as near as we understand it, the ball is in NASA's court to [conduct the controversial background checks or] come up with their own standards for these investigations," Nelson said.

"The one bright light in this finding is that the court made the ruling so narrow that it applies essentially only to us. It was not a broader ruling that citizens have no expectation for informational privacy, so it didn't damage other people's rights," he continued.

In the decision, which holds JPL researchers to the similar standards as government workers with access to classified information, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the justices were not ruling on whether citizens had a constitutional right to informational privacy.

"We reject the argument that the government, when it requests job-related personal information in an employment background check, has a constitutional burden to demonstrate that its questions are 'necessary,'" Alito wrote.

In a separate ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that he believed no such right to informational privacy exists.

Nelson said he and other JPL scientists would release a joint statement later this week.

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