January 21, 2015 / 3:25 PM / 4 years ago

Supreme Court backs former air marshal in whistleblower case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a former air marshal can seek whistleblower protections for disclosing sensitive information to the news media about the absence of security officers on certain flights.

The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

On a 7-2 vote, the court rejected arguments made by President Barack Obama’s administration, which was seeking to reverse an appeals court ruling favoring whistleblower Robert MacLean, who was fired for the 2003 leak.

“I believe the ruling will give other federal employees more confidence to expose wrongdoing,” MacLean, who was fired in 2006 and now works in residential construction management in California, said in an interview.

The legal question was whether MacLean’s actions may be protected by the U.S. Whistleblower Protection Act, a law that protects employees if a disclosure exposes unlawful conduct, gross mismanagement or threats to public safety.

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court concluded that U.S. Transportation Security Administration regulations that prohibited MacLean’s disclosures did not have sufficient legal force to bar him from receiving protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Roberts wrote that the government’s warnings about the threat to public safety were legitimate but “they are concerns that must be addressed by Congress or the president, rather than by this court.”

The litigation is not over as the courts have not yet definitively resolved whether MacLean’s actions merit protection under the whistleblower law. Alternatively, the government could agree to a settlement.

MacLean told a reporter with the MSNBC cable TV network that the TSA had decided not to assign air marshals to certain long-distance flights, a decision he disagreed with. He said the decision was made soon after the TSA had told marshals of a potential plot to hijack U.S. airplanes.

The TSA places undercover armed air marshals on some commercial U.S. flights to monitor security.

The events took place in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States involving hijacked airliners.

The government said the TSA had grounds to remove MacLean from his position because disclosure of such sensitive information was prohibited under agency regulations. But the court held on Wednesday that the whistleblower protections applies only to conduct barred by law, not just by regulation.

The Obama administration appealed after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in April 2013 for MacLean, saying the Aviation and Transportation Security Act did not specifically prohibit him from making the disclosure.

The case is Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-894.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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