422 U.S. 255 (1975), 74-450, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration v. Robertson

Docket Nº:No. 74-450
Citation:422 U.S. 255, 95 S.Ct. 2140, 45 L.Ed.2d 164
Party Name:Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration v. Robertson
Case Date:June 24, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 255

422 U.S. 255 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 2140, 45 L.Ed.2d 164

Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration

v.

Robertson

No. 74-450

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1975

Argued April 15, 1975

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondents requested the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make available Systems Worthiness Analysis Program (SWAP) Reports which consist of the FAA's analyses of the operation and maintenance performance of commercial airlines. Section 1104 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 permits the FAA Administrator, upon receiving an objection to public disclosure of information in a report, to withhold disclosure when, in his judgment, it would adversely affect the objecting party's interest and is not required in the public's interest. The Administrator declined to make the reports available upon receiving an objection from the Air Transport Association, which claimed that confidentiality was necessary to the effectiveness of the program. Respondents sued in the District Court seeking, inter alia, the requested documents. The District Court held that the documents were "as a matter of law, public and non-exempt" within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court "insofar as appellants rely upon Exemption (3)" of the FOIA.

Held: The SWAP Reports are exempt from public disclosure under Exemption 3 of the FOIA as being "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." Pp. 261-267.

(a) Exemption 3 contains no "built-in" standard as do some of the exemptions under the FOIA, and the language is sufficiently ambiguous to require resort to the legislative history. That history reveals that Congress was "aware of the necessity to deal expressly with inconsistent laws," and, as indicated in its committee report, did not intend, in enacting the FOIA, to modify the numerous statutes "which restrict public access to specific Government records." Respondents can prevail only if the FOIA is read to repeal by implication all such statutes. To interpret "specific" as used in such committee [95 S.Ct. 2143] reference as meaning that Exemption 3 applies only to precisely named or described documents would be asking Congress to perform an impossible task,

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and would imply that Congress had undertaken to reassess every delegation of authority to withhold information that it had made before the passage of the FOIA in 1966, a task that the legislative history clearly shows it did not undertake. Pp. 261-266.

(b) The broad discretion vested by Congress in the FAA under § 1104 to withhold information from the public is not necessarily inconsistent with Congress' intent in enacting the FOIA to replace the broad standard of the public disclosure section of the Administrative Procedure Act. Congress could appropriately conclude that the public interest in air transport safety was better served by guaranteeing confidentiality of information necessary to secure from the airlines the maximum amount of information relevant to safety, and Congress' wisdom in striking such a balance is not open to judicial scrutiny. Pp. 266-267.

162 U.S.App.D.C. 298, 498 F.2d 1031, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 268. DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 268.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari1 in this case in order to determine whether Exemption 3 of the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3),2 permits nondisclosure

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to respondents of certain reports in the files of the Federal Aviation Administration. This exemption provides that material need not be disclosed if "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." The reports are known as Systems Worthiness Analysis Program (SWAP) Reports.3 They consist of analyses made by representatives of the FAA concerning the operation and maintenance performance of commercial airlines. Oversight and regulation of air travel safety is the responsibility of the FAA, § 601 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 72 Stat. 775, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 1421. The FAA claims the documents are protected from disclosure

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by virtue of § 1104 of the [95 S.Ct. 2144] Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 49 U.S.C. § 1504.4

The facts of the case, in its present posture,5 are quite simple. During the summer of 1970, in connection with a study of airline safety being conducted by them, the respondents, associated with the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, requested that the FAA make available certain SWAP Reports. The FAA declined to produce the documents. In accordance with established procedures adopted by the FAA, the respondents then filed timely notice of administrative appeal in August, 1970. Several months later, while this administrative appeal was pending, the Air Transport Association, on behalf of its airline

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members, requested that the FAA make no public disclosure of the SWAP Reports. The Association noted that, in a prior memorandum of its own staff, the FAA had pointed out that "`[t]he SWAP Program requires a cooperative effort on both the part of the company and FAA if it is to work effectively,'" and argued that

[t]he present practice of nonpublic submissions, which includes even tentative findings and opinions as well as certain factual material, encourages a spirit of openness on the part of airline management which is vital to the promotion of aviation safety -- the paramount consideration of airlines and government alike in this area.

In February, 1971, the FAA formally denied respondents' request for the SWAP Reports. It took the position that the reports are exempt from public disclosure under 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(3), the section at issue here. As previously noted, that section provides that such material need not be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act when the material is specifically exempted from disclosure by statute. The FAA noted that § 1104 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 permits the Administrator to withhold information public disclosure of which, in his judgment, would adversely affect the interests of the objecting party and is not required to be disclosed in the interest of the public. The FAA also based its denial of these data on the exemption for intra-agency memoranda (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(5)), the exemption for investigatory files compiled for law enforcement purposes (§ 552(b)(7)), and, finally, the exemption for documentation containing trade secrets and commercial or financial information of a privileged or confidential nature (§ 552(b)(4)). The FAA's answer also explained its view of the need for confidentiality in SWAP Reports:

The effectiveness of the in-depth analysis that is the essence of SWAP team investigation depends, to

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a [95 S.Ct. 2145] great extent, upon the full, frank and open cooperation of the operator himself during the inspection period. His assurance by the FAA that the resulting recommendations are in the interest of safety and operational efficiency and will not be disclosed to the public are the major incentives impelling the operator to hide nothing and to grant free access to procedures, system of operation, facilities, personnel, as well as management and operational records in order to exhibit his normal course of operations to the SWAP inspectors.

Respondents then sued in the District Court, seeking, inter alia, the requested documents. The District Court held that

the documents sought by plaintiffs . . . are, as a matter of law, public and non-exempt within the meaning of 5 United States Code [§] 552, and plaintiffs are entitled to judgment . . . as a matter of law.

A divided Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court "insofar as appellants rely upon Exemption (3)," but remanded the case for consideration of other exemptions which the FAA might wish to assert. 162 U.S.App.D.C. 298, 498 F.2d 1031 (1974). Examining first what it felt was the ordinary meaning of the language of Exemption 3, the Court of Appeals held that its language required the exempting statute relied on to specify or categorize the particular documents it authorizes to be withheld. Because § 1104 delegated "broad discretionary authority" under a "public interest" standard, it was held not within the scope of Exemption 3. The Court of Appeals distinguished this Court's decision in EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73 (1973), on the ground that the exemption involved in that case was construed to be a specific reference by Congress to a definite class of documents, namely those that must be kept secret "`in the

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interest of the national defense or foreign policy,'" 162 U.S.App.D.C. at 300, 498 F.2d at 1033. The Court of Appeals read the Act as providing a comprehensive guide to congressional intent. One of the Act's major purposes was seen as intending to eliminate what it characterized as vague phrases such as "in the public interest" or "for good cause" as a basis for withholding information. Under these circumstances, the court concluded that § 1104 cannot be considered a specific exemption by statute within the meaning of Exemption 3 of the Freedom of Information Act.

This case involves no constitutional claims, no issues regarding the nature or scope of "executive privilege," but simply the scope and meaning of one of the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552. EPA v. Mink, supra, at 94 (STEWART, J., concurring). The Act has two aspects. In one, it seeks to open public records to greater public access; in the other, it seeks to preserve the confidentiality undeniably...

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