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Supreme Court says states may bar information requests from nonresidents

Virginia does not have to allow people outside its borders to take advantage of the commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Virginia’s law “provides a service that is related to state citizenship,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for a unanimous court, and keeping others from using it does not violate the constitutional rights of those outside the state’s borders.

As a practical matter, Alito added, most information is available through other means.

“Requiring noncitizens to conduct a few minutes of Internet research in lieu of using a relatively cumbersome state FOIA process cannot be said to impose any significant burden” on those who live outside the state, Alito wrote, using an acronym for the law.

The court sidestepped two other issues Monday:

●It decided not to reenter the debate over state laws that make life tougher for illegal immigrants. The decision not to hear an appeal from Alabama means that the state won’t be able to enforce a law that makes it a crime to harbor and transport illegal immigrants.

●The court dismissed a case from a Louisiana inmate who said a seven-year delay in bringing him to trial violated his right to a speedy court proceeding. The court heard oral arguments in the case in January but, over the objections of the four liberal justices, said it should not have been granted because the facts of the case did not support the legal question the justices wanted to decide.

The Virginia case was brought by two men who said it was discriminatory for the commonwealth to keep them from requesting documents through FOIA. Mark McBurney of Rhode Island wanted to examine records from the state Child Support Enforcement Division, and Californian Roger Hurlbert runs a business obtaining real estate tax assessments.

The men said Virginia’s law violates a provision of the Constitution meant to put residents of the states on equal footing when it comes to fundamental rights, as well as the dormant-commerce clause, which guards against economic protectionism. A handful of other states have similar statutes.

The Washington Post and other news organizations supported the plaintiffs, although there is an exception in the law for newspapers and other media organizations that circulate in the state.

Alito rejected the commerce argument. “Virginia’s FOIA law neither ‘regulates’ nor ‘burdens’ interstate commerce; rather, it merely provides a service to local citizens that would not otherwise be available at all,” he wrote.

Alito also said there were no fundamental rights at stake. “This Court has repeatedly made clear that there is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws,” he wrote.

He also noted that the federal Freedom of Information Act was not passed until 1966, with Virginia’s added a few years later.

“There is no contention that the Nation’s unity foundered in their absence, or that it is suffering now because of the citizens-only FOIA provisions that several States have enacted,” he wrote.

The case is McBurney v. Young.

In the Louisiana matter, the decision not to decide the case of inmate Jonathan Edward Boyer brought a retort from the liberal justices. “Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.

A lower court had said that Louisiana’s failure to fund a lawyer for Boyer was at least partly to blame for the delay. But Alito wrote that the facts of the case did not support the premise that a breakdown in state funding was at fault. “The record shows that the single largest share of the delay in this case was the direct result of defense requests for continuances,” he wrote.

Besides, he said, the delays seem to have helped Boyer. He was initially charged with first-degree murder in 2002 after shooting in the head a man who gave Boyer and his brother a ride. As the case dragged on, Louisiana dropped its demand for the death penalty, and Boyer was convicted of second-degree murder and armed robbery.

The case is Boyer v. Louisiana.

The Alabama case deals with one of several laws passed around the country to make states inhospitable to illegal immigrants. But the Obama administration told the court federal law provides a uniform way of dealing with the issue.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had blocked parts of the Alabama law from taking effect, citing the Supreme Court’s decision last June, in an Arizona case, that federal immigration law generally preempts state efforts.

As is its custom, the court did not explain its decision to bypass the Alabama case, though Justice Antonin Scalia said he would have accepted it.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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