U.S. Supreme Court

Kagan’s Majority Opinion Boosts Puget Sound Resident’s Quest for Explosives Maps

A Washington State resident’s quest for maps of explosives locations at a Puget Sound naval base got a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court today.

The requested maps and other explosives information can’t be withheld under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for documents about personnel rules and practices, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision (PDF). Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion.

“Judicial decisions since FOIA’s enactment have analyzed and reanalyzed the meaning of the exemption,” Kagan wrote. “But comparatively little attention has focused on the provision’s 12 simple words: ‘related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.’ ”

The data and maps at issue don’t fit into the exemption as it is worded, Kagan said. “By no stretch of imagination do they relate to ‘personnel rules and practices,’ as that term is most naturally understood. They concern the physical rules governing explosives, not the workplace rules governing sailors; they address the handling of dangerous materials, not the treatment of employees.”

The Supreme Court opinion rejected a more expansive interpretation of the exemption, first adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, that protects “predominantly internal” materials.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco had cited the more expansive interpretation when it ruled the materials could be withheld. The appeals court also pointed out the potential dangers of disclosure, saying the release of the maps could “point out the best targets for those bent on wreaking havoc.” Kagan acknowledged the concern, but said the government could use other tools to shield national security information.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented. The case is Milner v. Department of Navy.

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