US & World

JPL employees take their case to the Supreme Court

JPL employees hear their privacy case argued before the US Supreme Court, Oct. 5, 2010.
JPL employees hear their privacy case argued before the US Supreme Court, Oct. 5, 2010.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case today about employee privacy at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Chief Justice John Roberts summed up the legal question at the heart of the case: do citizens have the right to tell the government “it’s none of your business?”

A new NASA policy requires contractors — including Caltech employees who work at the Jet Propulsion Lab — to undergo background checks. Amy Hale and 27 other JPL employees sued the space agency over that policy.

Hale is a systems engineer on the Juno mission to Jupiter. To her, she says, "it was really the waiver, the release at the end. That says ‘Oh, by the way we can ask anybody anything about you.’"

In arguments before the court, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal described the questions as a “standard way of doing business” that use a form millions of government employees have filled out for dozens of years.

Research scientist Josette Bellan said some people may ask what she and fellow JPL employees have to hide.

"This is the same question that was asked by Communist regimes. This is the same question that was asked by the Nazi’s."

Bellan grew up under Communist rule in Romania before she emigrated to America. She says, "this is a government of the people, for the people. This is not anything else. And if you start going the way of a dictatorship, then you can ask that question. If you don’t, then you cannot ask that question."

Acting Solicitor General Katyal told the high court that potential employers ask open ended questions all the time to law clerks at the Supreme Court or baristas at Starbucks. He added that in this case, an employee’s security badge doesn’t just allow access to JPL — it also lets employees get within 10 feet of the space shuttle.

Pasadena attorney Dan Stormer says, "bullpucky." Stormer argued the case on behalf of the employees. He says employees could go to other NASA facilities, "but you have no more access than you would have at JPL, and that is you don’t have access to classified information."

Stormer described JPL as a campus-like atmosphere with low security. Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “does Al Qaida know this?”

The justices kept asking what kinds of questions should be off limits. The acting Solicitor General argued that the government can collect whatever information it wants in the context of employment — as long the responses remain private.

Attorney Dan Stormer said the government should gather employee information on a “need to know” basis.

But justices asked how employers know what questions to ask. Justice Samuel Alito posited, suppose a potential JPL employee had a lawn sign reading, "I hope the space shuttle blows up.” "How do you write a question that asks that?"

Outside the court, plaintiff and JPL engineer Dan Byrnes said the answer is simple: "Appropriate questions are the ones which prove your identity, prove that you have the educational background that is appropriate to your job. All of these things are appropriate. The open ended questions are not those things."

The high court is expected to announce its opinion in the next few months.