Outta State? Outta Luck

A recent Supreme Court decision could make it harder for information to be freely accessed across state lines.

The gist, penned by Justice Samuel Alito, for noncitizens?

“There is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws.”

Some background: A Rhode Island resident who had divorced his wife in Virginia filed a FOIA request seeking information about the state’s processing system after child support and custody papers he filed with the Virginia Division of Child Support Enforcement were inexplicably delayed for months.

Virginia denied his request. The state also refused to furnish a California man seeking real estate tax records, and a federal judge in Richmond later upheld the move.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed unanimously that Virginia could keep non-residents in the dark. Alito writes:

The commonwealth’s refusal to furnish the additional information did not abridge any constitutionally protected privilege or immunity. Nor did Virginia violate the dormant commerce clause. The state Freedom of Information Act does not regulate commerce in any meaningful sense, but instead provides a service that is related to state citizenship.

But the ruling included some key caveats, which the Courthouse News Service illuminates, that place the onus on nonresidents to pore over publicly available state data to preserve state resources — including employees’ time — exclusively for residents.

     [In the California man’s case,] circuit court clerks can furnish these records, Henrico County even publishes its real estate tax assessment records online.
“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 noncitizens’ ability to own or transfer property in Virginia,” Alito wrote.
Noncitizens likewise still have access to the courts, according to the ruling, which notes that McBurney ultimately received much of the information that he sought by placing his request under the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act.