Supreme Court destroys government transparency with Argus Leader ruling

Published 6:53 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Pop quiz: If the U.S. government gives taxpayers’ money to private, for-profit businesses, do taxpayers have a right to know how their money was spent?

Email newsletter signup

The U.S. Supreme Court’s answer this week: Nope.

The court’s supposedly conservative justices joined ranks in a 6-3 decision that keeps information secret about how much retailers make from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The ruling ends a lengthy struggle by the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota to obtain the information as part of investigations into fraud in the food stamp program, according to the newspaper’s reporting.

“This is a massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent and who is benefiting,” Argus Leader News Director Cory Myers said of the ruling.

The case has far-reaching implications for government transparency, because the majority opinion tears down a freedom-of-information precedent in place since 1974 that kept many records of the government’s dealings with private businesses available for the public to see.

Before, if the government and a private business wanted to keep a public record private, they had to prove releasing the record would cause substantial competitive harm to the business.

Now, thanks to justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, there is essentially no standard: Whether financial records are available publicly or not is left up to whether the business wants those records released.

Obviously, businesses are going to simply say that all their records are confidential and release as little as possible. Justice Stephen Breyer, one of three dissenting Supreme Court members, pointed out as much:

“Given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need to be disclosed, I fear the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness or bureaucratic inertia,” Breyer wrote.

Gannett, one of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S. and the owner of the Argus Leader, also warned of the broader implications following the ruling.

“The court’s decision effectively gives businesses relying on taxpayer dollars the ability to decide for themselves what data the public will see about how that money is spent,” USA Today Publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth told the Argus Leader. “This is a step backward for openness and a misreading of the very purpose of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The Supreme Court ruling is an open invitation to businesses: Come get the government’s taxpayer dollars and you won’t be held accountable for how they’re spent.

It’s a shameful distortion of American values. Abraham Lincoln once praised the U.S. as a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Today’s U.S. Supreme Court has a very different vision — government of the people’s money, for the corporations, no questions asked.