Supreme Court says states may bar information requests from nonresidents

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WASHINGTON -- 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 Alito 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, Justice 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, he wrote, using an acronym for the law.

The court's decision came as it sidestepped two other issues Monday:

• The justices decided not to re-enter the debate over state laws that make life tougher for illegal immigrants. The decision not to hear an appeal from Alabama means that state will not be able to enforce a law that makes it a crime to harbor and transport undocumented 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.

Justice 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.

He 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.

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