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Supreme Court to consider corporate privacy rights, revisit Anna Nicole Smith case

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 8:36 PM

The Supreme Court will determine whether a corporation can assert privacy rights to keep the government from releasing information about it and will revisit the tangled legal history of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith. Both cases are part of a batch of new work the justices accepted Tuesday.

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The court's 2010-11 term begins Monday. The court has already set its calendar for October, November and December, and on Tuesday, it accepted 14 more cases that will be heard next year.

One is Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T , which raises the question of what information the public may access about a company under investigation.

At issue is an exception to the Freedom of Information Act that restricts the release of documents that would violate a personal privacy interest. AT&T cited the exception to keep the FCC from releasing information gathered in an investigation of the company's participation in the federal E-Rate program, which helps provide Internet access to schools.

A federal appeals court agreed. But the government asked the high court to consider the issue, in a brief filed by then-solicitor general Elena Kagan, who joined the court last month. As a result, Kagan is recused from the case.

Public interest groups say the exception would prevent the public and media organization from getting timely information.

"If companies like Goldman Sachs, BP, and Massey Coal can interject a claim of corporate privacy into an exemption designed to recognize only 'valid governmental and individual interests in confidentiality,' then each time a request is made for records concerning newsworthy topics like the economic downturn, oil spill, and mine explosion, delay and withholding could result," said a brief filed by public interest groups and media organizations.

The court will also undertake its second review of the aftermath of the short marriage of Smith and billionaire J. Howard Marshall, who married when she was 26 and he was 89. Smith challenged Marshall's will after he died in 1995, because it left nearly all of his $1.6 billion fortune to son E. Pierce Marshall.

The younger Marshall died in 2006 and Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007. Their estates continue the battle, with Smith's daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead, the potential beneficiary. The case is Stern v. Marshall .

The court will also take up a decades-long battle between the Pentagon and contractors Boeing and General Dynamics on the never-built A-12 Avenger attack plane. The government canceled the contract in 1991 and is seeking $3 billion in repayment and interest.

The case centers on the state secrets privilege, which is normally asserted by the government in national security issues. The companies say that because of the doctrine, they could not get information needed to develop the plane, or to defend themselves in the resulting lawsuit.

The cases, which will be consolidated, are Boeing v. U.S. and General Dynamics v. U.S.


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