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United States Department of State v. Ray

Court Documents
Concurring Opinion

United States Supreme Court

502 U.S. 164

United States Department of State  v.  Ray

No. 90-747  Argued: Oct. 9, 1991. --- Decided: Dec 16, 1991


In 1981, the Secretary of State obtained an assurance from the Haitian Government that it would not subject to prosecution for illegal departure undocumented Haitians interdicted by the United States and returned to Haiti. Personnel of petitioner State Department monitored Haiti's compliance with the assurance by conducting interviews with a "representative sample" of unsuccessful emigrants, most of whom reported no harassment or prosecution after their return. During immigration proceedings, respondents, undocumented Haitian nationals and their attorney, sought to prove that the nationals were entitled to political asylum in the United States because Haitians who immigrate illegally face a well-founded fear of prosecution upon returning home. To disprove the Government's assertion that returnees have not been prosecuted, respondents made Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for copies of petitioner's interview reports and received, inter alia, 17 documents from which the names and other identifying information had been redacted. The District Court ordered petitioner to produce the redacted material, finding that the deletions were not authorized by FOIA Exemption 6, which exempts from disclosure "personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The Court of Appeals affirmed. It found that the returnees' significant privacy interests-stemming from respondents' intent to use the redacted information to contact and question the returnees and from the Federal Government's promise to maintain their confidentiality were outweighed by the public interest in learning whether the Government is adequately monitoring Haiti's compliance with its obligation and is honest when its officials opine that Haiti is adhering to its assurance. The court also concluded that the indirect benefit of giving respondents the means to locate and question returnees provided a public value requiring disclosure.

Held: Disclosure of the unredacted interview reports would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the returnees' privacy. Pp. 171-182.

(a) In order to determine whether petitioner has met its burden of justifying the redaction, the individual's right of privacy must be balanced against the FOIA's basic policy of opening agency action to the light of public scrutiny. Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 372, 96 S.Ct. 1592, 1604, 48 L.Ed.2d 11. Pp. 173-175.

(b) The privacy interest at stake in this case is more substantial than the Court of Appeals recognized. The invasion of privacy from summaries containing personal details about particular returnees, while de minimis when the returnees' identities are unknown, is significant when the information is linked to particular individuals. In addition, disclosure would publicly identify the returnees, possibly subjecting them or their families to embarrassment in their social and community relationships or to retaliatory action that might result from a renewed interest in their aborted attempt to emigrate. The lower court also gave insufficient weight to the fact that the interviews were conducted pursuant to an assurance of confidentiality, since the returnees might otherwise have been unwilling to discuss private matters and since the risk of mistreatment gives this group an additional interest in assuring that their anonymity is maintained. Finally, respondents' intent to interview the returnees magnifies the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of their identities. Pp. 175-177.

(c) The public interest in knowing whether petitioner has adequately monitored Haiti's compliance with the assurance has been adequately served by disclosure of the redacted interview summaries, which reveal how many returnees were interviewed, when the interviews took place, the interviews' contents, and details about the returnees' status. The addition of the redacted information would shed no further light on petitioner's conduct of its obligation. Pp. 177-178.

(d) The question whether the "derivative use" of requested documents-here, the hope that the information can be used to obtain additional information outside the Government files-would ever justify release of information about private individuals need not be addressed, since there is nothing in the record to suggest that a second set of interviews would produce any additional relevant information. Nor is there a scintilla of evidence that tends to impugn the integrity of the interview reports, and, therefore, they should be accorded a presumption of legitimacy. Pp. 178-179.

908 F.2d 1549 (CA11 1990), reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SOUTER, JJ., joined, and in all but Part III of which SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which KENNEDY, J., joined. THOMAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Kent L. Jones, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Michael Dean Ray, Miami, Fla., for respondent.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).