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National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson

United States Supreme Court
131 S. Ct. 746 (2011)


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (defendant) operated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a key NASA facility with multibillion-dollar funding from taxes. JPL only employed contract employees, who were considered to be the functional equivalent of federal civil servants. In 2004, the federal government began requiring contract employees to undergo background checks. Previously, only federal civil servants had undergone background checks. The standard background-check process required contract employees to fill out a form questionnaire that asked whether the employees had used illegal drugs within the last year and, if so, whether the employees had sought treatment or counseling. All employee responses were subject to the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibited the government from disclosing an individual’s records without the individual’s written consent. Prior to responding to the questionnaire, 28 of JPL’s contract employees (plaintiffs) brought suit, challenging the inquiry about treatment or counseling for recent illegal drug use. The plaintiffs argued that the inquiry violated their constitutional right to informational privacy and moved for a preliminary injunction. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. The plaintiffs appealed.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Alito, J.)

Concurrence (Scalia, J.)

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