Don’t Look Now but Hell Hath Frozen Over

Knock me over with a feather. You know that proverbial life preserver that gets tossed to the drowning man? Well, the Supremes TOSSED IT.

The Supreme Court actually ruled against a corporation, AT&T no less, in a case involving corporate privacy rights. The ruling prohibits corporations from mounting a legal challenge where government is releasing corporate information to the public. If you want a good laugh though see Chief Justice Roberts comment below. I’m thinking he had some serious heartburn with this ruling but even he, of the oversized balls and pea brain, was reluctant to rule the other way after the heat the court took from the Citizens United ruling.

From: Bloomburg Business Week
Corporate Privacy Rights Limited by U.S. Supreme Court
March 01, 2011, 11:22 AM EST

By Greg Stohr and William McQuillen

(Updates with quotes from opinion in third and ninth paragraphs.)

March 1 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. Supreme Court said companies can’t challenge the release of government documents on corporate privacy grounds, ruling against AT&T Inc. in a case stemming from a probe of the telecommunications provider.

The justices today unanimously barred corporations from invoking a provision in a federal document-disclosure law that protects against invasions of “personal privacy.”

“When it comes to the word ‘personal,’ there is little support for the notion that it denotes corporations, even in the legal context,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. He later said, “We trust AT&T will not take it personally.”

The ruling is a victory for the Obama administration, which said a lower court ruling favoring AT&T upset the decades-old understanding of the Freedom of Information Act, under which hundreds of thousands of requests are filed every year. A separate provision in FOIA protects against the disclosure of corporate trade secrets.

AT&T, the largest U.S. phone company, is trying to block disclosure of what it says are competitively sensitive documents connected to a 2004 Federal Communications Commission investigation into the company’s billing practices under a government program aimed at improving telecommunications technology in schools. AT&T reached a $500,000 settlement with the FCC that year.

FOIA Request

CompTel, a trade association representing companies that compete with AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., filed a freedom of information request in 2005, seeking access to the investigation file. The FCC concluded it was obligated to release many of the records, saying the “personal privacy” exemption applied only to individuals.

A federal appeals court had sided with AT&T, saying the statute’s definition of “person” suggests that “personal includes corporations.

Roberts today rejected that reasoning, devoting much of his 12-page opinion to discussing the finer points of grammar. He said words like “corny,” “crabbed” and “cranky” have distinct meanings from nouns that come from the same roots — “corn,” “crab” and “crank.”

“Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always,” Roberts wrote.

AT&T’s Argument

Roberts said AT&T’s argument “treats the term ‘personal privacy’ as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person.”

Justice Elena Kagan didn’t take part in the case. She had played in a role in the litigation as President Barack Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer before her appointment as a justice.

Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, was one of 23 media organizations urging the court to side with the government. In a separate case that hinges on the trade-secrets exemption, Bloomberg is seeking to force the Federal Reserve Board to release documents identifying banks that might have failed without a U.S. government bailout.

The case is Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., 09-1279.

–Editors: Jim Rubin, Laurie Asseo.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Look Now but Hell Hath Frozen Over

    1. Good point C. Even Roberts and Co relish the chance to get in their licks on that score. Still, this is small potatoes when compared to the damage done by Citizens United. Roberts could afford to give this one away. Whatever the next big ruling comes along I’m confident it’ll be business as usual. Again.

  1. This is an interesting decision that I had no knowledge of.

    I have to think about this, but I know that corporations use a lot of space in their contracts protecting ‘trade secrets’ and punishing whistleblowers.

    I have to take a closer look at this.

    Thank you!

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