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Federal court curbs appeal rights for ‘sensitive’ defense jobs

A federal appeals court on Tuesday curbed the appeal rights of two Defense Department employees in a case that critics say will have broad implications for civil service protections.

The 7-3 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit prohibits the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) from hearing cases involving “non-critical sensitive” workers, a ruling that alarms labor groups and whistleblower advocates who say it strips away civil due process for employees.

“The court created a ‘sensitive jobs loophole’ . . . and openly backed a proposed administration rule to declare virtually any job as national-security sensitive,” the Government Accountability Project said in a statement. The administration proposal refers to a draft rule that would allow the government to brand virtually any federal government position as national security “sensitive” and therefore outside the civil service system rule of law.

The appeals court’s decision came amid rising concerns about the White House’s aggressive stance toward leakers and a day before a military judge sentenced Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison for handing over classified documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The Obama administration has prosecuted six former and current government officials under the Espionage Act, more than all the administrations combined since the law was enacted in 1917.

MSPB general counsel Bryan Polisuk declined to comment on the ruling, citing the panel’s policy of not remarking on its decisions or those of the federal circuit.

The Office of Personnel Management brought the case to the appeals court, challenging the board’s claim that it could review personnel actions against two low-level defense workers because their jobs did not require access to classified information. The employees were accounting technician Rhonda Conyers, who was suspended indefinitely, and commissary worker Devon Northover, who was demoted.

The majority in Tuesday’s decision said the review board focused too narrowly on access to classified information while ignoring “the impact employees without security clearances, but in sensitive positions, can have.” As an example, the judges said a commissary worker could tip off the enemy to a deployment after noticing a surge in inventory.

“It is naive to suppose that employees without direct access to already classified information cannot affect national security,” Judge Evan Wallach wrote for the majority.

OPM spokeswoman Lindsey O’Keefe declined to comment on the case, saying it may involve further litigation.

In the dissent, Judge Timothy Dyk wrote that the ruling would “effectively deny MSPB review for hundreds of thousands of federal employees — a number that is likely to increase as more positions are designated as non-critical sensitive.”

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, head of the agency that handles federal whistleblower claims, concurred.

“This decision poses a significant threat to whistleblower protections for hundreds of thousands of federal employees in sensitive positions and may chill civil servants from blowing the whistle,” she said.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the two employees, said in a statement Tuesday that it will review the court’s decision and that it expects to seek a Supreme Court review.

AFGE President J. David Cox said the court “dismissed our appeal and with it the due process rights of tens of thousands of current and future federal workers.”

“Due process rights are the very foundation of our civil service system,” Cox added. “That system itself has been undermined by the court today, if this ruling is allowed to stand.”

In its decision, the court cited a 1988 Supreme Court ruling that limited MSPB’s authority over cases involving national security concerns. But that case was brought by a laborer whose job required a special security clearance for access to classified information, whereas Conyers’s and Northover’s positions did not.

Critics of the decision say the ruling expanded the 1988 precedent, further limiting the review board’s jurisdiction and opening the door for abuses of the “noncritical sensitive” classification.

“A bureaucracy where it is only safe to be a national security ‘yes man’ is a clear and present danger to freedom for all Americans,” said Government Accountability Project legal director Tom Devine.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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