Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that background checks conducted by NASA for contract employees were not unlawful. In NASA v. Nelson (S. Ct.. January 19, 2011), a group of contract employees sued NASA and alleged that background checks conducted by NASA violated their constitutional right to privacy.
Until recently, contract employees at NASA were not subject to background checks when they were hired. Rather, only civil servants were subject to background checks. Recently, however, the government adopted uniform identification standards for both federal civil servants and contractor employees. The background check included the use of Standard Form 85, the Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive positions, which asks whether an employee has “used, possessed, supplied, or manufactured illegal drugs” within the past year. The background check also included the use of an open-ended questionnaire that was sent to the employees’ references, and asked about the employees’ “honesty or trustworthiness.”
The NASA contract employees filed suit against NASA, and argued that such a background check violated their right to privacy.
The Supreme Court ruled that the background check conducted by NASA was “reasonable” in light of the government’s interests at stake. The Court also noted that the government’s interests were not diminished simply because the plaintiffs were “contract employees.” In the Court’s mind, there was no meaningful distinction between a civil-service and contract employee that would render NASA’s background checks unreasonable.
The court also added that although such information was collected by NASA, it was not shared with the public. Therefore, there was no disclosure to the public of such information.
A copy of the Court’s decision can be read here.