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Milner v. Department of the Navy

Case number:
09-1163
Country:
United States
Date of decision:
7 March 2011
Court / Arbiter:
United States Supreme Court ( Supreme )


Decision:

FOIA Exemption 2, which protects from disclosure material “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency” does not apply to military explosives data and maps because Exemption 2 covers strictly human resource matters.


Keywords:
Deliberations / Advice (including free and frank provision of advice within and among public bodies, executive privilege, internal documents, opinions, analyses, reports)
Law enforcement / Administration of justice (including prevention/investigation/prosecution of crime, due process)
National security (including defense, intelligence, state security, state secrets, secrecy laws)
RTI law
Security sector (including intelligence bodies, military, police)

Case details:

Facts

In 2003 and 2004, local resident Glen Milner submitted FOIA requests for explosives data and maps used by the Department of the Navy in storing munitions (pg. 1-2, 5). The Navy denied the request, invoking “Exemption 2” (5 U.S.C. Art. 552(b)(2)), which protects from disclosure material “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency” (pg. 6). Grounded in this exemption, the Navy argued that disclosure would threaten the security of the base and its surrounding community (pg. 5). After the district court ruled in favor of the Navy, dismissing the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Decision

The Supreme Court ruled that the Navy was not justified in withholding the explosive maps and data requested because Exemption 2 applies only to records relating to employee relations and human resources issues (pg. 1, 19). The Court, however, stated that other exemptions may be applicable.

The Supreme Court considered both the language of the FOIA statute and its legislative history to find a narrow definition of the word “personnel” in Exemption 2 as justifying the withholding of information only if it refers strictly to human resources matters (e.g. a “personnel department deals with employee problems and interviews applicants for jobs”) (pg. 6-7). The Navy offered a broader reading of this exemption, which would have also covered “predominantly internal” materials whose disclosure would “significantly ris[k] circumvention of agency regulations or statutes,” as well as any information “for personnel” (pg. 3-4, 10-12, 15).

Finally, the Court recognized that while the Navy has a strong security interest in shielding this kind of data from public disclosure, there are other exemptions available for that purpose, including Exemptions 1, 3, and 7 concerning access to classified documents, records that any other statute exempts from disclosure, and information compiled for law enforcement purposes, respectively (pg. 17-18). The Supreme Court directed that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a subsequent review, may consider the applicability of Exemption 7, which protects “information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . [if its release] could reasonably be expected to endanger the life of physical safety of an individual” (pg. 18).

Resources:

Judgment of the Court.