425 U.S. 352 (1976), 74-489, Department of the Air Force v. Rose

Docket Nº:No. 74-489
Citation:425 U.S. 352, 96 S.Ct. 1592, 48 L.Ed.2d 11
Party Name:Department of the Air Force v. Rose
Case Date:April 21, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 352

425 U.S. 352 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 1592, 48 L.Ed.2d 11

Department of the Air Force

v.

Rose

No. 74-489

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1976

Argued October 8, 1975

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Under the United States Air Force Academy's Honor Code, which is administered by a cadet committee, cadets pledge that they will not lie, steal, or cheat, or tolerate among their number anyone who does. If a cadet investigatory team finds that a hearing before an Honor Board concerning a suspected violation is warranted, the accused may call witnesses, and cadet observers attend. The Board, consisting of eight members, may adjudge guilt only by unanimous vote, but may, if at least six members concur, grant the guilty cadet "discretion," which returns him to his squadron in good standing. A cadet found guilty without discretion may resign, or request a hearing by a Board of officers or trial by court-martial. The Honor Board hearing is confidential, but the committee prepares a summary, which is posted on 40 squadron bulletin boards and distributed among Academy faculty and officials. In not-guilty and discretion cases, names are deleted. In guilty cases, names are not deleted, but posting is deferred until the cadet has left the Academy. Ethics Code violations, for less serious breaches, are handled more informally, though on a similarly confidential basis. Respondents, present or former student law review editors researching for an article, having been denied access to case summaries of honors and ethics hearings (with identifying data deleted), brought this suit to compel disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the Department of the Air Force and certain Academy officers (hereinafter collectively the Agency). The District Court, without in camera inspection, granted the Agency's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the summaries were "matters . . . related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency," and thus exempted from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 2 of the FOIA. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that exemption inapplicable. The Agency had made the contention, which the District Court rejected, that the case summaries fell within Exemption 6 as constituting

personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted

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invasion of personal privacy.

The Court of Appeals, while disagreeing with the District Court's approach, did not hold that the Agency, without any prior court inspection, had to turn over the summaries to respondents with only the proper names removed, or that Exemption 6 covered all or any part of the summaries, but held that, because the Agency had not maintained its statutory burden in the District Court of sustaining its action by means of affidavits or testimony, further inquiry was required, and that the Agency had to produce the summaries for an in camera inspection, cooperating with the District Court in redacting the records so as to delete personal references and all other identifying information.

Held:

1. The limited statutory exemptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant legislative objective of the FOIA. Pp. 360-362.

2. Exemption 2 does not generally apply to matters, such as the summaries here involved, in which there is a genuine and important public interest. Pp. 362-370.

(a) The phrasing of that exemption reflected congressional dissatisfaction with the "internal management" exemption of former § 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act, and was generally designed, as the Senate Report made clear, to delineate between, on the one hand, trivial matters and, on the other, more substantial matters in which the public might have a legitimate interest. Pp. 362-367.

(b) The public has a substantial concern with the Academy's administration of discipline and procedures that affect the training of Air Force officers and their military careers. Pp. 367-369.

3. Exemption 6 does not create a blanket exemption for personnel files. [96 S.Ct. 1596] With respect to such files and "similar files," Congress enunciated a policy, to be judicially enforced, involving a balancing of public and private interests. Regardless of whether the documents whose disclosure is sought are in "personnel" or "similar" files, nondisclosure is not sanctioned unless there is a showing of a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and redaction of documents to permit disclosure of nonexempt portions is appropriate under Exemption 6. Pp. 370-376.

4. Even if "personnel files" were to be considered as wholly exempt from disclosure under Exemption 6 without regard to whether disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, the case summaries here were not in that category, although they constituted "similar files," relating as they

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do to the discipline of cadets, and their disclosure implication similar privacy values. Pp. 376-377.

5. The Court of Appeals did not err in ordering the Agency to produce the case summaries for the District Court's in camera examination, a procedure that represents "a workable compromise between individual rights `and the preservation of public rights to [G]overnment information,'" which is the statutory goal of Exemption 6. Pp. 378-381.

(a) The limitation in Exemption 6 to cases of "clearly unwarranted" invasions of privacy indicates that Congress did not intend a matter to be exempted from disclosure merely because it could not be guaranteed that disclosure would not trigger recollection of identity in any person whatever, and Congress vested the courts with the responsibility of determining de novo whether the exemption was properly invoked. Pp. 378-380.

(b) Respondents' request for access to summaries "with personal references or other identifying information deleted" respected the confidentiality interests embodied in Exemption 6 and comported with the Academy's tradition of confidentiality. Pp. 380-381.

495 F.2d 261, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 382, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 385, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 389, filed dissenting opinions. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision, of the case.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents, student editors or former student editors of the New York University Law Review researching

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disciplinary systems and procedures at the military service academies for an article for the Law Review,1 were denied access by petitioners to case summaries of honor and ethics hearings, with personal references or other identifying information deleted, maintained in the United States Air Force Academy's Honor and Ethics Code reading files, although Academy practice is to post copies of such summaries on 40 squadron bulletin boards throughout the Academy and to distribute copies to Academy faculty and administration officials.2 Thereupon, respondents brought this action under the Freedom of Information [96 S.Ct. 1597] Act, as amended, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1970 ed. and Supp. V), in the District Court for the Southern District of New York against petitioners, the Department

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of the Air Force and Air Force officers who supervise cadets at the United States Air Force Academy (hereinafter collectively the Agency).3 The District Court granted petitioner Agency's motion for summary judgment

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-- without first requiring production of the case summaries for inspection -- holding in an unreported opinion that case summaries, even with deletions of personal references or other identifying information, were "matters . . . related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency," exempted from mandatory disclosure by § 552(b)(2) of the statute.4 The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding that § 552(b)(2) did not exempt the case summaries from mandatory disclosure. 495 F.2d 261 (1974). The Agency argued alternatively, however, that the case summaries constituted

personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,

exempted from mandatory disclosure by § 552(b)(6). The District Court held this exemption inapplicable to the case summaries, because it concluded that disclosure of the summaries without names or other identifying information would not subject any former cadet to public identification and stigma, and the possibility of identification by another former cadet could not, in the context of the Academy's practice of distribution and official posting of the summaries, constitute an invasion of personal privacy proscribed by [96 S.Ct. 1598] § 552(b)(6).

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Pet. for Cert. 32A. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this approach, stating that it "ignores certain practical realities" which militated against the conclusion "that the Agency's internal dissemination of the summaries lessens the concerned cadets' right to privacy, as embodied in Exemption six." 495 F.2d at 267. But the court refused to hold, on the one hand, either

that [the Agency] must now, without any prior inspection by a court, turn over the summaries to [respondents] with only the proper names removed . . .

or, on the other hand, "that Exemption Six covers all, or any part of, the summaries in issue." Id. at 268. Rather, the Court of Appeals held that, because the Agency had not carried its burden in the District Court, imposed by the Act, of "sustain[ing] its action" by means of affidavits or testimony, further inquiry was required, and "the Agency must now produce the summaries themselves in court" for an in camera inspection

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