Published Thursday, December 13, 2007 4:09 AM PST


JPL privacy case is not yet resolved

The 28 Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech employees who in August brought a lawsuit against NASA/JPL for newly required background checks were in U.S. Court of Appeals last week in Pasadena but did not see the case resolved.

“We had oral argument with the Ninth Circuit Court,” said Virginia Keeny, attorney for the JPL employees. “They did not offer an opinion.”

Keeny added she was not certain when the panel of three judges would hand down an opinion but that it might be in the new year.

Earlier this year, NASA/JPL implemented new background checks that employees were required to complete, even those who do not work in high security areas.

Dan Stromer, another member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, described the background checks as extreme. Investigators may look into the employee’s medical records and even sexual history. The employees bringing the lawsuit are scientists and engineers; they contend that this practice is unconstitutional. NASA/JPL has stated that employees who refuse to complete the background checks will lose their jobs.

On Oct. 3, a federal judge denied the employees’ request to block the checks. Two days later, the Ninth Circuit Court granted a temporary injunction, which was extended to Dec. 5.

The background checks are part of a Bush administration directive requiring new background checks for all government employees. The executive order is titled Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. The directive was issued in 2004. In an earlier interview with the Valley Sun, David Mould, NASA assistant administrator for public affairs said that there had not been a recent security breach or any concerns about scientists at JPL. He stated that the agency is just complying with the law.

The question of why background checks are being required years after the initial directive is one of the issues being reviewed by the panel of three judges.

“The [judges] did seem very focused on the issue and the constitutional concerns raised,” Keeny said.

The judges are now reviewing the arguments by both sides, however no date has been given regarding when that opinion will be issued.

“If the ruling is against us, I would assume [NASA] would precede to reinstate the background investigations,” Keeny said. If the decision is favorable a preliminary injunction will be awarded to the employees. They would head back to district court to request a permanent injunction. Whatever the decision, the case will continue for some time before a final ruling, Keeny said.