JPL employees Wednesday criticized federal authorities for seeking a U.S. Supreme Court review of an appeals court decision blocking the government from requiring mandatory background checks.

The U.S. Solicitor General's Office wants the nation's highest court to review the ruling, arguing that it could affect the government's ability to conduct background checks of contract employees.

Robert Nelson, a JPL scientist and the lead plaintiff in the case, said he was disappointed by the government's decision to pursue the case to the Supreme Court level.

"We particularly had hoped that the Obama administration would take a closer look at the unwise national security decrees of his predecessor," Nelson said.

In June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld its previous ruling from January of 2008, which granted JPL employees an injunction against having to submit to background checks to continue their employment.

The federal injunction affected all of JPL's nearly 5,000 low-security employees, not just the 28 listed in the case.

The employees had originally lost their case in district court. That action was filed by the employees in August 2007.

NASA implemented the strict new rules in accordance with an executive order by President Bush to create secure identification for all federal employees in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

Caltech gave employees at JPL the option of completing the required


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background checks - or face possible termination.

"The decision prevents the routine background checks of many contract government employees and it casts a constitutional cloud over the background check process the government has used for federal civil service employees for 50 years," wrote Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, in the document requesting review of the case.

Nelson took issue with that assertion Wednesday, saying that the form the government asked JPL employees to complete has changed substantially over the years and has become increasingly invasive.

"It borders on un-American," said Dan Stormer, attorney for the plaintiffs. "It is amazing that this administration can allow that statement to be made."

He said the information that the government asked JPL to turn over includes information about their politics, beliefs, sexual orientation and mental health.

The employees in the suit have non-sensitive positions, and some, like Nelson, have worked at JPL for 30 years without having to submit to the same background checks as other government employees, Stormer said.

Employees in the case stressed that they do not have access to secret information that would pose a threat to national security.

"I drive the Mars rovers and every image that comes back from the rovers is public data - the public sees every image an hour after I do," said Scott Maxwell, a Mars Rover team leader and a plaintiff in the suit. "It's not as if JPL needs to know every aspect of my private and personal life."

emma.gallegos@sgvn.com

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