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New JPL background checks barred

U.S. judges seek more time to study regulation, which workers say would violate rights.

October 06, 2007|Jason Song | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday issued a temporary injunction blocking a federal government directive that would require new background checks for employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

A group of 28 JPL scientists filed a suit in August to stop the investigations, which they said amounted to a blank check for the federal government to look into such areas as their sexual orientation and consumer histories.

The employees had been facing the potential loss of their jobs unless they met a Friday deadline to comply with the directive by filling out questionnaires and signing a waiver allowing the investigations.

A U.S. District Court had upheld the background checks Wednesday.

"This ruling shows we're not going to let hysterical fear and innuendo undermine the Constitution," said attorney Dan Stormer, who represented the JPL scientists.

Calls made to JPL's La Caada Flintridge offices were not returned Friday. But NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in June that the background checks were part of a post-Sept. 11 security update and that the agency was intent on carrying them out.

Some of the plaintiffs have been employed by the federal government for more than 20 years and worked on projects including the Voyager missions. None had classified or sensitive positions.

In its order, the 9th Circuit judges wrote that they had not had time to review all of the case material but noted that the JPL employees had raised serious legal and constitutional issues and showed the "probability of irreparable harm."

"What is quite clear is that the balance of hardships tips strongly in their favor," the three-judge panel wrote.

The temporary order expires Oct. 12. Stormer said he expects the order to be continued until Oct. 25, when opening briefs in the case are due.

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jason.song@latimes.com

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