By: Gina Holland, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the government does not have to release 11-year-old photographs from the suicide of Clinton White House lawyer Vincent Foster because it would cause his family pain and intrude on their privacy.
The unanimous decision makes it more difficult to use a public records law to access federal law enforcement records from autopsies and death scenes. Justices said the privacy rights of survivors must be balanced against the public’s right to information.
A California attorney had sought the Foster pictures, saying they might prove he was murdered as part of a White House cover-up. There was no reasonable evidence of that, the Supreme Court said.
“Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
The widow of race car driver Dale Earnhardt had filed papers with the Supreme Court opposing the release of four photographs of Foster’s body. The Earnhardt family had worked in Florida courts to prevent public release of autopsy photographs of Earnhardt, who died in 2001 during the Daytona 500.
Multiple investigations determined that a depressed Foster shot himself in the head at a Civil War-era park in Virginia in 1993. The 48-year-old longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton was handling several personal legal matters for them at the time.
Foster’s family had joined the government in fighting the release of death scene pictures to attorney Allan Favish. Favish sought the photos under the Freedom of Information Act. He argued that the law did not give any special privacy rights to relatives.
The Bush administration maintained that a victory for Favish, known as a Clinton antagonist, could lead to the release of other sensitive information, like autopsy photographs of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and pictures of unidentified remains from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Supreme Court ruled that a part of the law that allows the government to withhold records that could “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” applies to the survivors.
Kennedy said that means child molesters and murderers cannot use the law to get photographs of deceased victims.
“We find it inconceivable that Congress could have intended a definition of ‘personal privacy’ so narrow that it would allow convicted felons to obtain these materials without limitations at the expense of surviving family members’ personal privacy,” he wrote.
It was an important clarification of the federal law that allows reporters and others to get some unclassified records. State records are not affected by the case, because states have different laws about public access.
Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the decision was a “setback to the public’s right to know.”
Favish had the backing of media groups worried that the court could keep too much information off-limits and hurt journalists trying to uncover wrongdoing and abuse in federal agencies.
Kennedy said that even if family members object to the release of information, a court could order it if there is some evidence of government impropriety. That is not the case in Foster’s death, he said.
Thousands of pages of reports about the Foster death and more than 100 photographs have already been released, and five government investigations concluded that the death was a suicide.
The case is National Archives and Records Administration v. Favish, 02-954.