Monday, April 29, 2013
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in McBurney v. Young that a state can restrict its own freedom of information law to its own citizens without violating the Privileges and Immunities Clause or the dormant Commerce Clause. We covered oral arguments here.
The ruling puts an exclamation point behind the idea that there's no fundamental right to public records. If there were any doubt going into the case, this ruling settled the matter: Our Constitution doesn't require freedom of information. If you want it, take it up with your legislature.
The case arose out of two out-of-state claimants' efforts to get Virginia state records through the state FOIA. One of those claimants, McBurney, sought records related to the state's 9-month delay in enforcing a child support order that he had against his ex-spouse, a Virginia resident. The other, Hurlbert, sought state real estate tax records on half of his clients. The state didn't provide the requested records pursuant to its FOIA, however, because its FOIA extends only to state citizens. (It did provide most of the records through other means.) Both McBurney and Hurlbert sued, arguing that the FOIA violated the Article 4 Privileges and Immunities Clause and the dormant Commerce Clause.
The Court disagreed. In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court said that the FOIA doesn't interfere with a fundamental right in violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause. It said that the FOIA doesn't violate the opportunity to pursue a common calling, because the law wasn't designed to provide a competitive advatage for Virginia citizens. It doesn't violate the right to own or transfer property in Virginia, because Virginia makes the necessary records available through the clerks of its circuit courts (even if not through its FOIA). The FOIA doesn't violate the right to gain equal access to Virginia courts, because its citizens-only application leaves open "reasoanble and adequate" access to the courts (because state procedure allows discovery and subpoenas, which would provide noncitizens with any relevant and nonprivileged information, and state law allows equal access to judicial records). And it doesn't violate a claimed right to gain access to public information on equal terms, because, well, there is no such right.
The Court also rejected Hurlbert's dormant Commerce Clause claim, ruling that Virginia's FOIA neither regulates nor burdens interstate commerce. "[R]ather, it merely provides a service to local citizens that would not otherwise be available at all." Op. at 13.
Justice Thomas joined the opinion but wrote separately to remind us of his view that "[t]he negative Commerce Clause has no basis in the text of the Constitution."