3/8/2010 Court to consider NASA employee background checks

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Reuters- March 8, 2010

The Supreme Court said on Monday that it would decide whether NASA background investigations, required of scientists, engineers and all other employees at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, violated their privacy rights.

The high court agreed to rule on the legal challenge by the longtime employees, who had been classified as “low risk,” to the in-depth checks for information on medical treatment or counseling for drug use or any other “adverse” information, including private sexual matters.

The laboratory, owned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and operated by the California Institute of Technology, is known for developing satellites, rockets, spacecraft and telescopes.

All positions at the laboratory are filled by contract employees. Employees who do not agree to the checks could lose their jobs.

NASA in 2007 required that every employee undergo the background investigation as a condition to being allowed access to the facilities.

A group of 28 scientists, engineers and administrative personnel sued and challenged the investigations for violating their constitutional privacy rights.

A federal judge ruled for NASA, but a U.S. appeals court disagreed and decided that NASA should be blocked from conducting the background checks.

The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

Administration lawyers said the appeals court ruling prevented the routine background checks of many government contract employees and that it cast constitutional doubt on the process that has been used for more than 50 years.

Attorneys for the employees questioned why NASA decided to institute the checks for the first time in more than 50 years at the laboratory, which is located on an open campus, has limited security and welcomes outside visitors.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments and then decide the case during its upcoming term in October.

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