Public searching of state records nationwide just got dumbed down in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that is bad for both commercial information collectors and journalists hoping to use freedom of information laws to follow a story wherever it goes—and quickly. Last week the court ruled that the Constitution is not violated when states confine the right of access to their public records to their own residents. The parties immediately frustrated by the ruling included a Rhode Islander seeking Virginia records to show that its bureaucratic delays had cost him child support payments and a Californian seeking real estate tax documents for a business client. Virginia denied the use of its public records access law to both because of their non-residence.
According to Adam Liptak’s report for the New York Times,
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for a unanimous court, said that provisions of the Constitution meant to ensure that citizens of different states are treated the same in many settings did not apply to what he called a noncommercial service whose fixed costs were borne by state taxpayers. Much of the information was available in other ways, he added. “Requiring noncitizens to conduct a few minutes of Internet research in lieu of using a relatively cumbersome state FOIA process,” he wrote, “cannot be said to impose any significant burden.”
Justice Alito wrote that at least seven other states had laws limiting requests for information to their citizens. The Virginia law contains an exception for representatives of newspapers and magazines with circulation in Virginia and of radio and television stations that broadcast there. It does not address Internet publications.
But states are not required to give news media any concessions, and a Sacramento Bee editorial yesterday criticizing the ruling showed how one of its currently major investigative series could have been made a lot costlier by Nevada if that state had a law like Virginia’s.