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High court hears arguments in challenge to drivers' records law

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Nov 15, 1999    

High court hears arguments in challenge to drivers’ records law

  • Arguments before the Court regarding the act focused on whether Congress had the power to pass the law, rather than privacy concerns.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the ongoing challenge to the Drivers Privacy Protection Act could affect the way journalists gain access to personal information. But instead of dissecting the privacy issues the 1994 law invokes, the Supreme Court debated during oral arguments in mid-November whether Congress even had the power to pass such a law.

The long-term implications of the case seemed to pique the interests of the justices more than the immediate privacy concerns at stake, as their questions dealt primarily with the scope of authority the Constitution gives the federal government to regulate states.

The case presents the Court with the dilemma of whether to keep expanding the protection states enjoy under the Tenth Amendment against federal intervention or to continue recognizing Congress’ broad powers to regulate activities under the Commerce Clause.

A call for privacy laws such as the DPPA was borne out of the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker who, with the help of a private investigator, found her address from a search of driving records. The law imposes conditions on how states may release the driver information they collect to private individuals and companies. The act, however, contains 14 exceptions that allow various types of commercial and law-enforcement users, including private investigators, to continue requesting and receiving the driver information legally.

On appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.), South Carolina argued that the DPPA violates the Tenth Amendment limits on federal power over the states if those states choose to release driver information. The law requires states that release the information to do so only for authorized purposes and users, which results in an overly cumbersome burden for states to administer, South Carolina argued.

The federal government countered that driver information is an instrument in interstate commerce that Congress is authorized to regulate under the Commerce Clause. But during oral arguments, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer questioned that assertion, suggesting that it was improper for Congress to have passed the act under its Commerce Clause power because the clause was intended to allow Congress to regulate individuals but not states.

Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who was defending the law for the federal government, disagreed, saying the Commerce Clause was sufficient authority under which Congress could act: “If this database were a database from a financial institution, there would be no question Congress could regulate it if there was a substantial effect on interstate commerce. … The people of South Carolina are, of course, citizens of the United States, and they have the right to call upon the federal government to protect their rights,” Waxman added.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon tried to persuade the Court that the act was unconstitutional. Condon argued that the act imposes overly burdensome administrative and regulatory schemes on states, with the federal government commandeering state workers and requiring them to perform federal functions.

While most of the justices appeared unmoved by Condon’s argument that the act commandeered state workers, others were openly hostile to it, firing off questions that left the attorney general on the defensive. Many of the questions found parallels between the DPPA and other federal laws that regulate states, albeit indirectly, such as food safety, hour-and-wage, and environmental laws, and asked Condon whether he was urging that these laws also be struck down.

“I don’t see any difference between this law and the wage-and-hour law, which is a nightmare to administer,” Justice David Souter said at one point.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who has historically favored state rights over federal power, said, “I don’t see how they are commandeering you at all. They are telling you not to give out information. If you want to give out some information, that’s your problem.”

But the Court may not reach a decision on the DPPA’s constitutionality at all. In October, Congress passed an appropriations bill that authorizes the act under Congress’s spending power and seeks to tie federal highway money to compliance with the act. In a supplemental brief filed with the Court days before oral argument, Waxman argued that regardless of the outcome in this case, the DPPA’s provisions will remain law.

(Reno v. Condon)

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© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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