February 21, 2013
Can States Limit Government Information to Their Own Citizens?
The Supreme court heard oral arguments yesterday in McBurney v. Young, a case testing whether a state's freedom of information law, or FOIA, can limit access to government information to its own citizens consistent with the Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause and the Dormant Commerce Clause. (Together these provisions restrict states in discriminating against out-of-staters in the exercise of fundamental rights or important economic interests, or in interstate commerce.) The case was brought by two out-of-staters against Virginia after the state denied them access to records related to the state's enforcement of a child support order and state property records collected for clients as part of a business. Virginia is one of only three states that restricts its FOIA records to in-staters.
The case is tough, because it's not obvious that Virginia's restriction is a restriction on interstate commerce (in violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause), and it's not obvious that the access that the petitioners seek is the kind of right that they, as out-of-staters, should enjoy with respect to Virginia.
The questions from the bench went right to these points. The Court was concerned about whether Virginia's restriction was, in fact, a restriction on commerce, or whether it was merely a law, not a commercial regulation, that had at most an incidental effect on interstate commerce. (The Dormant Commerce Clause points go to the property-records seeker, not the child-support seeker.) In other words: does the Dormant Commerce Clause even apply, given that this may not be a regulation of commerce?
Justices were also concerned about the magnitude of the effect, on both sides. As to the petitioners, they wondered why the cost to the petitioner wasn't negligible. After all, any out-of-stater could simply hire an in-stater for a nominal fee to file their request and thus dodge the restriction. As to the state, they wondered why the cost to the state in providing equal access to its records was significant. The burden of addition requests from out-of-staters didn't seem to be much.
Finally the Justices wondered whether Virginia shouldn't be allowed to restrict access to its records, given that its law is designed to provide access to government information to ensure good government--a concern that applies uniquely to Virginians. On this point, several Justices compared the right to access to the right to vote, and noted that out-of-staters don't get it. In short: Shouldn't Virginia be able to keep its records to its own state citizens? The question goes at least in part to the purpose of Virginia's FOIA--to provide information on governance (as the state would have it), or to restrict information in restraint of free trade (as the petitioner argued).
The parties didn't provide terrific answers to any of these questions. But counsel for the petitioner did note that the challenge was as applied, not facial. This could allow the Court to rule narrowly in favor of this individual, without overturning the restriction as to anyone else. But even that result seems likely only if the Court can get over two threshold problems. First, the restriction is not a direct discriminatory regulation of interstate commerce (even if it may have an indirect effect on interstate commerce in this case). Next, Virginia is certainly able to restrict some of its state functions to its own citizens. The question for the Court: Is this one of them?
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