CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE - A federal judge Friday barred NASA from requiring
background checks for any of its low-security Jet Propulsion Laboratory
employees until the courts resolve whether the checks constitute an
invasion of privacy.
U.S. District Judge Otis Wright's decision followed hours after
a panel of three 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ordered him
to revisit the case filed by 28 JPL employees against the federal
government and Caltech.
In October, Wright denied the employees' request for a
preliminary injunction, writing that they had "not shown either a
likelihood of success on the merits or irreparable injury."
Wright's ruling Friday ensures that the injunction will
apply to all of JPL's nearly 5,000 low-security employees, not just
those who filed the lawsuit.
The JPL scientists and engineers had argued that the
background checks, which include questions about drug use and treatment
and an open-ended waiver releasing personal information to
investigators, collected more information than needed for the purported
goal of creating a secure identification badge.
Before the court battles began, JPL staff members were told
they would be "voluntarily terminated" from their posts if they opted
out of the security checks.
In their 25-page decision, the appellate judges found that
many of the employees' claims had merit and that "the balance of
hardships tips sharply toward Appellants, who face a stark choice -
either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs."
9th Circuit judges also found that Caltech - which manages JPL - should
remain a defendant in the case because of its role in creating a
"coercive environment" for the employees.
Wright, who had dismissed the school from the lawsuit just two days before, said he would reconsider his ruling.
after Friday's hearing, during which Wright admitted he had not yet had
time to read the 9th Circuit's decision, confusion reigned as lawyers
for each side disagreed about whether that meant he had reinstated
Caltech for now, or not.
Wright gave each side 10 days to submit their arguments
about Caltech's role in the case, and a month for all parties to
prepare a joint plan and timeline for a trial.
During the hearing, Department of Justice lawyer Vesper Mei
also suggested the government might request an "en banc" review of the
the Court of Appeals' ruling, in which a panel of 15 Ninth Circuit
judges would reconsider the case.
More than once, though, Wright stated his hope that the parties could solve their dispute outside the courthouse.
don't like the idea that these claims are going to be litigated. I want
these claims to be negotiated," he said. Then, after a pause, he added:
"I also wanted a bicycle for Christmas ..."
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