Supreme Court Backs Shroud on Food Stamp Data

WASHINGTON (CN) — South Dakota journalists seeking data on food stamps under the Freedom of Information Act suffered a 6-3 reversal Monday at the Supreme Court.

The case argued in April involved a FOIA exemption that protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.”

Argus Leader Media initiated the dispute in 2011 when it asked the government for information on retailers that participate in the food stamps program.

Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused, saying records on sales at individual stores qualified as confidential commercial information, two lower courts ordered disclosure, saying information cannot fall under the protective exemption unless its release is likely to cause serious competitive harm.

Justice Elena Kagan joined her conservative colleagues today, however, in finding that the government has the power to safeguard the data.

Regardless of whether disclosure would cause “substantial competitive harm,” the court found it sufficient that it would likely harm the retailers financially.

The journalists with Argus Leader sought information on the funds funneled into stores nationwide each year via the government’s $65 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“As the Eighth Circuit observed, the grocery industry is ‘highly competitive,’ and disclosure of store-level SNAP data likely would help competitors win business from the Institute’s members,”  Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

Baker Botts attorney Gavin Villareal represented the food retailers, members of the trade group Food Marketing Institute, cheered today’s ruling.

Villareal emphasized that his clients “believe in transparency” through FOIA but that the law is not intended to “inversely impact” businesses by harming their competitive advantage through the release of classified information.

The ruling hinged on four-decade-old precedent called National Parks & Conservation Association v. Morton, which says information cannot fall under the protective exemption unless its release is likely to cause serious competitive harm.

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented meanwhile with a stricter interpretation of the meaning of confidential information.

“A speaker can more sensibly refer to his Social Security number as ‘confidential’ than his favorite color, in part because release of the former is more likely to cause harm,” Breyer wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “‘Confidential,’ in this sense, conveys something about the nature of the information itself, not just (as the majority suggests) how it is kept by those who possess it.” (Parentheses in original.)

Breyer emphasized that the whole point of FOIA requests is to grant public access to information not otherwise available.

“The fact that private actors have ‘customarily and actually treated’ commercial information as secret cannot be enough to justify nondisclosure,” Breyer wrote. “After all, where information is already publicly available, people do not submit FOIA requests — they use Google.”

But the majority said their colleagues cited exclusively from specialized dictionary definitions to support their argument in opposition.

“As Justice Breyer has noted, Congress enacted FOIA it sought a ‘workable balance’ between disclosure and other governmental interests — interests that may include providing private parties with sufficient assurances about the treatment of their proprietary information so they will cooperate in federal programs and supply the government with information vital to its work,” Gorsuch wrote.

This story is developing…

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