A federal appeals court ruled Friday that background checks of low-risk employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory should be blocked because they threaten the constitutional rights of workers.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the 28 scientists and engineers who refused to submit to the background checks "face a stark choice - either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs."
The workers sued the federal government, claiming the investigations into their lives would invade their privacy - allowing probes into medical records and questioning friends about everything from their finances to their sex lives. If they didn't agree to the checks, they could be fired.
"We're ecstatic," attorney Dan Stormer said of the ruling. "This represents a vindication of constitutional protections that all of us are entitled to. It prevents the government from conducting needless searches into backgrounds. "
NASA has argued that requiring employees to submit to the investigations was not intrusive and that the directive followed a
Bush administration policy applying to millions of civil servants and contractors.
The plaintiffs have worked for many years at JPL, which is known
for its scientific explorations of space and study of Earth.
If the workers were forced to quit rather than submit to invasive questions, it would hurt the space program, affecting Mars rover and other programs, Stormer said.
The decision written by Judge Kim Wardlaw reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Otis Wright and sent the case back to him with orders to "fashion a preliminary injunctive relief consistent with this opinion."
The higher court said Wright abused his discretion and committed
several errors when he ruled that there was no merit to the claim that the scientists would suffer irreparable harm by signing the authorization forms.
It said that the lower court was wrong to conclude that the form which employees were asked to sign was "narrowly tailored."
"This form seeks highly personal information using an open-ended technique including asking for 'any adverse information which ... may have a bearing on this person's suitability for government employment,"' Wardlaw wrote. "There is nothing 'narrowly tailored' about such a broad inquisition."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)