The ruling comes in a case brought by NASA employees at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. When the employees were hired, background checks were not required. But following recommendations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, President George W. Bush ordered the checks in 2004 as a condition of employment. NASA modified its contract with Cal Tech in 2007 to reflect the new condition.
Besides filling out a standard form and answering a question on recent drug use and drug counseling, employees had to sign a release authorizing the government to obtain personal information from schools, employers and others. Investigators also send a form to an employee's references asking whether there is any reason to doubt the employee's "honesty or trustworthiness."
Before a deadline on the background checks, a group of employees filed suit, claiming the inquiries about drug counseling served no legitimate purpose and open-ended questions of others that were not narrowly designed to identify an employee or protect security violated the employees' constitutional privacy rights.
A federal judge refused to issue an injunction against the background checks, but a federal appeals court panel reversed. Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court.
Writing for the full court, Justice Samuel Alito said the forms and questions were reasonable in light of the government interests at stake.
"With these interests in view, we conclude that the challenged portions of both (forms) consist of reasonable, employment-related inquiries that further the government's interests in managing its internal operations. ...," Alito wrote. "In context, the follow-up question on 'treatment or counseling' for recent illegal-drug use is also a reasonable, employment-related inquiry."
He added: "We reject the argument that the government, when it requests job-related personal information in an employment background check, has a constitutional burden to demonstrate that its questions are 'necessary' or the least restrictive means of furthering its interests."