Category Archives: podcasts

Podcast FCC v. AT&T

By Marc Seltzer; the following podcast was originally broadcast at via iTunes on January 16, 2011 at Supreme Podcast.

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This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case titled Federal Communications Commission v. AT & T.

The case comes out of the third Circuit, which includes the states Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, after a three judge appellate panel there decided in favor of AT&T, and the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, petitioned the Supreme Court for review.

The case concerns the potential release of documents contained in an FCC investigation file.

The FCC, a federal agency, conducted an investigation into potential overcharging of the government by AT&T on a technology project for the New London school district.  AT&T had called the billing issues to the government’s attention after its own internal investigation and subsequently reached an agreement to resolve the issue.  However, a trade association, including competitors of AT&T, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, commonly referred to as a “FOIA,” seeking release of the FCC file.  The file included internal e-mails providing pricing and billing information, the names of employees involved in the billing issue, and AT&T’s internal assessments of the employee’s violations.

The FOIA request required government officials to turn over documents unless an exemption applies.

AT&T asserted that a law enforcement investigation exemption, #7, applied to information in the government’s possession, which is private, and if released would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Supreme Court precedent on FOIA generally has embraced a balancing act.  In one recent noteworthy case, United States DOD v. ACLU, over the release of photographs of prisoner abuse by the US military, the high court explained:
Congress established in FOIA a “basic policy”
favoring disclosure, but it simultaneously recognized
that “important interests [are] served by the exemptions.”
Those exemptions embody Congress’s commonsense
determination that “public disclosure is not always
in the public interest.”  For that reason, the “Court consistently
has taken a practical approach” in interpreting FOIA’s
exemptions, in order to strike a “workable balance.”

The FCC reviewed AT&T’s request to keep the government’s files secret and decided that the personal privacy exemptions did not protect corporations from the release of private information:  “A corporation, as a matter of law, has no ‘personal privacy.'”

AT & T challenged the FCC decision by filing a lawsuit in federal district court, claiming that Exemption 7 for personal privacy applied to corporations.  AT&T argued that “person” is defined in the FCC exemptions to include an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency.”  If person included corporation, AT&T argued, it followed that personal privacy would include corporate privacy.  However, the district court agreed with the FCC, finding that a corporation could not claim protection of a personal privacy exemption.  Person may be defined as corporation, but personal was not defined, and neither case law nor common usage conceived of personal as applying to corporations.

On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, agreeing with AT&T that the use of the world person included corporate or other entities and the words personal privacy included information of a corporation such as AT & T.  Neither the Third Circuit nor the district court conducted the second part of the exemption inquiry to determine, if the law protected corporations’ privacy interests, did the evidence in this instance require withholding documents in order to protect those interests.

The US supreme court will now decide if the FCC was right in rejecting AT&T’s claim to a personal privacy interest.

In oral argument, the justices appeared skeptical of AT &T’s attempt to include corporations or other entities within the language of personal privacy, especially given no traditional of doing so.  Discussing why the issue did not appear to have come up before, Justice Breyer said:

“Well, one reason might be that this has really never been a problem because all the legitimate — or most of them, anyway — that these organizations that have interests in privacy are actually taken care of by the other 17 exemptions here.”

Justice Scalia: “Another reason might be that personal — nobody ever thought that personal privacy would cover this.”

AT&T’s counsel,  Jeff Kleinberg, raised the issue of the use of FOIA by commercial competitors.

“Increasingly, FOIA is being used by – by competitors and legal adversaries to obtain information, not about what the government is doing, not about what the government is up to, but about what evidence the government might have gathered from private parties.”

But Justice Ginzberg asked: “Is that a reason to change what was the understanding of Exemption 7?”

The justices then inquired into the understanding of the exemption at the time that FOIA was created.

Attorney Kleinberg:
Well, Your Honor, the –Attorney General Levy’s memorandum did not go into a long discussion or description of the analysis. It simply said it does not appear or does not seem to apply to corporations.

Justice Scalia, somewhat rhetorically looking for congressional intent stated,
“But if Attorney General Levy’s description, which was — which was issued for the purpose of telling all the agencies of the Federal government what this new statute meant — and it had a lot of ambiguities in it — if that was wrong about -about this subject, you would have thought somebody would have objected.
I mean, did some members of Congress who -who had passed FOIA say, this is outrageous; what about the personal privacy of General Motors? I’m not aware of any objections along those lines.”

SupremePodcast.com — May 29, 2010

SupremePodcast.com

A weekly podcast review of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, grants of certiorari (cases accepted for review) and biographies of justices and nominees to the high Court.

May 29, 2010, Podcast

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Transcript of my May 29, 2010, SupremePodcast.com segment, Lewis v. Chicago:

Lewis v. City of Chicago, Ill.  Issued by the Supreme Court May 24, 2010

In a week when the 46 year old Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in the news –Tennessee Senate primary victor Rand Paul having questioned some of the Act’s provisions in articulating his philosophy of government overreach — the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion with respect to application of the Civil Rights Act to the City of Chicago and its fire department hiring practices.

The facts of the case are straightforward:  Chicago offered a test to 26,000 prospective firemen.  Those who achieved a score of 89 and above were marked “well qualified.”  Those who scored between 65 and 88 were deemed “qualified.”  Those below 65 were not qualified.  The city adopted this policy in 1995.  It further decided that only “well qualified” candidates would be hired first as needed.  It kept the files of “qualified” candidates in case all “well qualified” candidates were considered and additional positions were still available.

The city of Chicago continued to apply the same standard drawing from the original pool of “well qualified” candidates for six years, causing a number of potential “qualified” firemen not to be hired although it did select some qualified applicants in the end.

6000 African American candidates who had been rated qualified, but had not been hired, sued the city.

In the course of the litigation, the city stipulated, or accepted, the fact, that African Americans had been severely impacted in a way that was different than other racial groups by the 89-point cutoff.  This is called a severe disparate impact and is recognized by statute as a basis for challenging government hiring policies.  The Court of appeals referred to disparate-impact liability as “primarily intended to lighten plaintiff’s heavy burden of proving intentional discrimination after employers learned to cover their tracks.”

At trial the African American group of qualified candidates won their discrimination case.  The court ordered 132 of them to be hired by random selection from the class of 6000.   Back pay for what the 132 would have earned was awarded and was to be split among the other remaining candidates who were not hired.

The city appealed the trial court decision on the grounds that the applicants had not filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claims within 300 days of the test date.  The city argued that the statue required claims under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act to be filed with the EEOC within 300 days of the violation of the law.  The city considered the discriminatory act to be when the test results were given, placing applicants into the “qualified” group, back in 1995. If the firemen failed to file a charge with the EEOC within 300 days, the city was entitled to consider the act lawful.  But the applicants argued that the policy was applied continuously over six years excluding them from advancing in the process and that the 300 day limit should be counted from each time the test results were used to determine which candidates would be called up for further consideration for open positions.

The 7th circuit reversed the trial court, finding the applicants’ claims were time barred.

The applicants petitioned the Supreme Court for review and in a decision written by justice Antonin Scalia the court unanimously reversed the 7th circuit.

The Court decided that in applying the same standard year after year to candidates who had originally “qualified” the city continued the violation such that the claims were filed in time.

The application of the policy had served to deny the firefighters’ opportunity.  The city could not hide behind the claim that their initial decision was all that counted for the purposes of starting the clock on timeliness.

The case was thus not in the Supreme Court on the merits of the discrimination claim and makes no substantive changes in the law on discrimination.  Those issues were decided in the trial court in favor of the fireman.  And the district or trial court decision, being a lower court, has little strength as precedent.  In fact, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 7th circuit court of appeals on remand to make certain other determinations before final result would be known.

The case may be more significant for its dicta, which is the language and positions of the court not so central to its decision to become precedent but meaningful in expressing the court’s reasoning.  Justice Antonin Scalia used the case to forcefully articulate principles of judicial restraint.

“It is not for us to rewrite the statute so that it covers only what we think is necessary to achieve what we think Congress really intended.

Our charge is to give effect to the law Congress enacted.  Congress allowed claims to be brought against an employer who uses a practice that causes disparate impact, whatever the employer’s motives and whether or not he has employed the same practice in the past.  If that effect was unintended, it is a problem for Congress, not one that the federal courts can fix.”

While not surprising, the unanimity behind such a clear statement of judicial restraint illustrates the ascendance of such principles.

Redefining America: Constitution and Leadership 2010 – BP Gulf Oil

Marc Seltzer and Jessica Pieklo continue a podcast conversation about current issues:

May 12, 2010:  BP Gulf Oil Disaster Podcast (click to listen)

Redefining America: Constitution and Leadership 2010 – Nominee Elena Kagan

Marc Seltzer and Jessica Pieklo discuss:

The merits of a Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court (click to listen — loads in a few seconds)

Comment at NPR Planet Money about the Ugly Comment Trail There

Second comment on:

Experts Say Bills Won’t End ‘Too Big To Fail’

As to the comment trail here, I want to say that I respect the earnest Conservative vision of free-market capitalism and small-government individualism, but those who call President Obama a Socialist or Maoist simply illustrate their lack of education about the historical references they make and undermine the credibility of political arguments for libertarianism and against Progressive or Democratic-party principles. Obama, viewed reasonably, is no different than most Presidents who have attempted to solve problems of their time.

The differences between practical Republican and practical Democratic platforms, on the role of government and its financing, are not so different as they are made out to be in the public debate. There are differences and there are merits to Conservative and Liberal positions, but the key is to learn about the real distinctions and make the best choices among them. Instead, the current anti-Obama hatred is parroted from talking points for partisan political purposes, without getting the analysis, or as I say, even the terms, correct. It’s a shame, because good policy is a mix of Libertarian, Conservative, liberal, bureaucratic ideas put to practical use to meet specific real world challenges. http://wp.me/pm5qY-ig

Our discussion of current issues continues here:

Redefining America:  Constitution and Leadership 2010

Podcast, April 12, 2010 (Click to hear)

With the November congressional elections in mind, we discuss the Democrats’ efforts to regain momentum after the passage of health care reform legislation and Republicans’ attempt to champion a rally against the incumbent majority government.

“My Take” — Marc Seltzer on understanding politics

“My Take” podcast, March 12, 2010 (Click to hear)

Today’s topic is health care reform.  I discuss a few good articles (below) and a few bad misconceptions about current reform efforts.

Krugman “Health Reform Myths” in the New York Times

LA Times Cost Control the Key

Is Obama Winning? by Robert Shrum in The Week.

Disgraceful for Dems to Sabotage Health Bill.  This is the Real Clear Politics title, but its better than the original, “A Disgrace for the Democrats.” By Michael Tomasky.

Earmark Reform.   New York Times