(Blogmeister’s Note: Boo-yah!!! The Swami puts his prediction out there on February 27, and the Supreme Court follows through two days later. Is this guy good or what? As our ace prognosticator predicted, the Supreme Court has rejected in no uncertain terms AT&T’s claim that corporations have personal privacy rights for purpose of FOIA Exemption 7(c).)
OK, so I predicted that the FCC would win AT&T v. FCC in a walk and, when the decision comes down, it’s the Commission in a slam dunk. (OK, I predicted the vote would be 7-1, and it came in 8-0. Nobody’s perfect.) I’ll spare you the facts, since they can be found in my earlier post. Instead, I’ll simply let you know a little more about Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court.
As I correctly foresaw, the Court was most moved by plain statutory language, although it turned out to be more an exercise in grammar than straight-up definitions.
The Court thoroughly disagreed with AT&T’s position that the undefined term “personal” in FOIA Exemption 7(c)’s protection of “personal privacy” should derive its meaning from a separate statutory definition of “person” which can include a corporation. “Person” is a noun; “personal” is an adjective. They are different. Building on his favorite give-and-take during oral argument, the Chief Justice writes:
Adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always. Sometimes they acquire distinct meanings of their own. The noun “crab” refers variously to a crustacean and a type of apple, while the related adjective “crabbed” can refer to handwriting that is “difficult to read,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 527 (2002); “corny” can mean “using familiar and stereotyped formulas believed to appeal to the unsophisticated,” id., at 509, which has little to do with “corn,” id., at 507 (“the seeds of any of the cereal grasses used for food”); and while “crank” is “a part of an axis bent at right angles,” “cranky” can mean “given to fretful fussiness,” id., at 530.
That’s really all you need to know, as everything flowed from this initial tutorial. The Chief Justice showed he has “street smarts” as well as “book smarts”:
Certainly, if the chief executive officer of a corporation approached the chief financial officer and said, “I have something personal to tell you,” we would not assume the CEO was about to discuss company business. Responding to a request for information, an individual might say, “that’s personal.” A company spokesman, when asked for information about the company, would not. In fact, we often use the word “personal” to mean precisely the opposite of business-related: We speak of personal expenses and business expenses, personal life and work life, personal opinion and a company’s view.
Though the Chief Justice probably didn’t need to go beyond the plain language rationale for the holding – either for the sake of sound legal reasoning or in order to get the buy-in of the more liberal members of the Court – he did note that neither of two FOIA exemptions dealing with personal privacy (i.e., Exemptions 6 and 7(c)) has ever been read to apply to anything but an actual person. By contrast, other exemptions (primarily Exemption 4) relating to trade secrets appear to protect similar interests held by corporations. That’s largely because, as the FCC pointed out during oral argument, legislative history and DOJ Guidance contemporaneous with the creation of Exemption 7(c) clearly define “personal” accordingly.
So that’s it . . . well, almost. We’re compelled to point out two other aspects of the decision. First, for all the FOIA-geeks out there, the opinion makes no mention – and, more importantly, does not appear to buy into – the government’s strange and controversial position that FOIA exemptions should not be construed narrowly. Second, the Chief deserves a serious hat tip for the way in which he closed out his opinion:
We reject the argument that because “person” is defined for purposes of FOIA to include a corporation, the phrase “personal privacy” in Exemption 7(C) reaches corporations as well. The protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations. We trust that AT&T will not take it personally.
Well worded, Your Honor!