US Supreme Court ruling on employee background checks makes the nation less safe, says plaintiff in the case
By Jake Armstrong 02/03/2011
Pretty soon, Robert Nelson and other contract workers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory will likely have to submit to the background checks they’ve fought in court for the past three-and-a-half years.
That’s because the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that the checks, ushered in as part of a presidential homeland security directive from former President George W. Bush, did not violate the informational privacy rights of Nelson, the lead plaintiff, and other Caltech contract scientists working at the NASA laboratory who joined in the suit.
But with the justices’ 8-0 decision that the government’s questions about prior drug use or treatment — perhaps even sexual tendencies — serve a national security interest, Nelson said he wonders why those checks don’t spread throughout the ranks of government officials and employees.
“It’s a standard that applies to some and not to others? If it is that important, why are they not doing it at Caltech also?” Nelson asked. “I doubt the 435 people you saw at the state of the union address took a drug test. I doubt the 100 people in the Senate pee in a bottle every month.”
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the government’s need to know about its employees is not diminished if they are contract workers.
“… History shows that the Government has an interest in conducting basic background checks in order to ensure the security of its facilities and to employ a competent, reliable workforce to carry out the people’s business,” the ruling read in part.
The checks are voluntary, but the ruling allows NASA to terminate contract employees who do not comply. But it will likely take some time before the background check process begins, as the case has yet to fully wend through the legal system, Nelson said.
Nelson said he doubts the world is any safer in the wake of the ruling, in which Justice Elena Kagan took no part since she previously represented the government when she served as solicitor general.
“In fact, its probably less safe because resources that are being directed to pay these people to do these background investigations might be better spent on something that would really make the world safe, perhaps diplomacy,” he said.