SCOTUS background check case is very… American

20 Jan

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decided that elements of a background check administered to contractors working at a NASA laboratory are constitutionally permissible.

The contractors challenged a question that asks whether individuals have “used, possessed, supplied or manufactured illegal drugs” in the last year and a question to those answering “yes” about “treatment or counseling received.” They also objected to the breadth of inquiries routinely made to references, including questions that sought facts potentially related to “honesty or trustworthiness,” “financial integrity,” “abuse of alcohol and/or other drugs,” and “mental or emotional stability.”

Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion. He assumes, without deciding, that a right to “informational privacy” exists under the United States Constitution but holds that, in any event, the background check questions at issue are justifiable on a contextual balancing of interests. He stresses that government, when acting as employer, has a much “freer hand” to deal with individuals, stresses the pervasiveness of similar screening questions in the private sector and stresses that the information collected is well-protected by the federal Privacy Act.

Justice Scalia, with Justice Thomas concurring, wrote a concurring opinion in which he holds there is no constitutional right to “informational privacy.” He mocks the contractors for their failure to rely on a single provision of the Constitution in written argument and criticizes the majority for its “damaging” “never-say-never” position.

Justice Scalia’s display of sharp wit is well worth a read, but as Canadian employment law practitioner, the following statement by Justice Alito is even more remarkable:

Like any employer, the Government is entitled to have its projects staffed by reliable, law-abiding persons who will“‘efficiently and effectively’” discharge their duties. See Engquist, supra, at 598–599. Questions about illegal-drug use are a useful way of figuring out which persons have these characteristics. See, e.g., Breen & Matusitz, An Updated Examination of the Effects of Illegal Drug Use in the Workplace, 19 J. Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 434 (2009) (illicit drug use negatively correlated with workplace productivity).

This shows such different values than currently reflected in our own screening law. In particular, Canadian adjudicators have expressed great discomfort with the suggestion that individuals who casually use illegal drugs outside the workplace will be less efficient, effective or reliable while at work. Justice Alito (and his six esteemed colleagues) draw the link between illegal drug use simpliciter and workplace performance so easily that it makes you wonder whether we are missing something.

NASA v. Nelson, 562 U.S. ____ (2011).

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