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Judge Orders U.S. To Halt NASA Background Checks

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge has blocked the government from performing in-depth background checks on low-risk employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The injunction came on the heels of a 9th Circuit finding that the Bush-mandated checks "raise serious legal and constitutional questions."

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright issued the injunction after the circuit reversed and remanded his October decision. The higher court found that the 28 engineers and scientists subjected to the background checks faced "a stark choice - either violation of their constitutional rights or loss of their jobs."

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 requires JPL employees to sign a waiver releasing their answers to a questionnaire that asks about their medical records, finances and sex lives, among other things.

Appellants claimed the checks invaded their privacy without a legitimate state interest because most of the employees have worked at the laboratory for more than 20 years, none has access to classified material and all have been declared low-risk employees. But if they refused to answer the questionnaires - even for non-sensitive positions - they were barred from the laboratory and fired.

The circuit rejected Wright's finding that appellants would not suffer irreparable harm, because the government could pay them retroactively for any temporary job loss. The federal appeals court cited legal errors and an abuse of discretion as grounds for the reversal. See circuit ruling.

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