This week, arguments were made in the first federal whistleblower protection case ever to reach the US Supreme Court. The case could set a precedent for protecting whistleblowers across the board — not just for those disclosing sensitive information, but those in every government agency — who face regulation-based retaliations for exposing information in the public interest.
Robert J. Maclean is a former air marshal who blew the whistle on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cuts to MSNBC in 2003, after seeking internal remedies. In response, the TSA reversed its decision to cut down on air marshals during overnight flights but also fired Maclean several years later for disclosing “Sensitive Security Information,” which isn’t illegal but does breach their internal regulations.
In 2009 Maclean, represented by the Government Accountability Project, challenged his dismissal at the Merit Systems Protection Board, on the grounds that “his disclosure of the text message was protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (WPA), because he ‘reasonably believe[d]’ that the leaked information disclosed ‘a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.’”
The MSPB sided with the government’s view that the “WPA’s ban on disclosures ‘specifically prohibited by law’ encompassed ‘information that is specifically prohibited from disclosure by a regulation promulgated pursuant to an express legislative directive.’” However, last year a three-judge Federal Circuit panel vacated that ruling on appeal. Now the Department of Homeland Security wants the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, claiming it “clears a path for any employee to do what [MacLean] did.”
At the Supreme Court
SCOTUSblog frames the basic question facing the Supreme Court as follows:
For a disclosure to be “specifically prohibited by law,” must an Act of Congress expressly bar that specific disclosure, or is it enough for Congress to generally delegate to an administrative agency the power to bar that specific disclosure?
A win for the Department of Homeland Security would represent a significant weakening of US whistleblower laws that, for non-classified sectors at least, are relatively well regarded.
The court heard oral arguments this week, and journalists are reporting that the government faced tough questioning from the justices, with Maclean’s case appearing to be favoured. The Washington Post writes that “the tone of the questions and comments from the justices hearing his case provided ample reason for this former air marshal to feel good about the first Supreme Court case directly involving a federal whistleblower.”
As the New York Times reports, “Ian H. Gershengorn, a deputy solicitor general, received hostile questions from most of the justices. Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance, was unconvinced by Mr. Gershengorn’s attempt to argue that the word “law” in isolation encompassed some but not all regulations.”
Some justices wondered how transportation workers could tell what information was too sensitive to be disclosed. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted that the government’s own brief had conceded that Mr. MacLean had been free to tell reporters “that federal air marshals will be absent from important flights” but also decline “to specify which flights.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Maclean’s lawyer, “The facts are very much in your favor.”
Whether or when the justices will deliver a ruling remains to be determined, but follow the case’s progress here, and we will report on any updates.
Update: 22 January 2015
On 21 January, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in MacLean’s favour.
As SCOTUSblog’s Steve Vladeck writes, “Chief Justice Roberts quickly dispensed with the government’s theory – that the TSA regulations prohibiting unauthorized disclosure of SSI ‘specifically prohibited’ MacLean’s disclosure ‘by law.’”
Vladeck continues, commenting on the implications this case has for future whistleblowers:
the decision in MacLean clarifies that the Whistleblower Protection Act’s exemption for disclosures “specifically prohibited by law” does not apply to disclosures prohibited solely by agency regulations – or even by statutes that command the agency to promulgate non-disclosure regulations. Instead, the statute must itself bar the disclosure for the disclosure to be “specifically prohibited by law.
For now, whistleblower protections have not been weakened, though Chief Justice Roberts has invited Congress or the President, rather than the Court, to address whether to narrow them in national security cases.