A group of federal contract workers filed suit against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), challenging the use of new background check procedures. The workers were contract employees at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated by CalTech. The workers were not required to submit to government background checks when they were initially hired. But in 2007, an executive order issued by President Bush mandated the adoption of uniform identification standards for federal contractor employees. NASA modified its contract with CalTech to reflect the new requirement, mandating that all federal contract employees working in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory submit to a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI).

The NACI included a questionnaire that asked whether employees had “used, possessed, supplied, or manufactured illegal drugs” in the past year. If an employee responded “yes,” he or she was required to provide details, including information about treatment or counseling. The contract workers were also required to sign a release authorizing the government to obtain additional information from references. The forms sent to references asked open-ended questions, such as whether the reference had reason to question the employee’s “honesty or trustworthiness,” and whether the reference had any “adverse information” about the employee regarding violations of the law, alcohol or drug abuse, financial matters, “mental or emotional stability,” “general behavior or conduct,” or “other matters.”

A group of scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory filed suit in a California federal court, seeking a preliminary injunction to halt implementation of the background checks. They argued that the new procedures violated their Constitutional right to informational privacy. The District Court denied the injunction, but, on appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed and issued an injunction.

NASA appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States, which overturned the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court held that the background checks were permissible because NASA’s inquiries were reasonably related to the government’s interest in securing its facilities, employing a competent and reliable workforce, and managing its internal operations. The court also noted that any information produced as part of the NACI process was “subject to substantial protections” from public disclosure under the Privacy Act of 1974. National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson, No. 09-530 (U.S. Jan. 19, 2011)