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Justices say states can limit public records access

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday states are free to allow public records access only to their own citizens, delivering a blow to freedom of information advocates who had challenged a Virginia law.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said two out-of-state men did not have a right to view the documents. Various other states, including Tennessee, Arkansas and Delaware, have similar laws, although some do not enforce them.

The men, Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert, had claimed the restrictions violated a provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires states to treat non-residents the same as residents.

McBurney, a former Virginia resident, was seeking documents relating to a family dispute with his ex-wife. Hurlbert runs a California-based business that seeks real estate tax records on behalf of private clients.

The state rebuffed requests from both men, prompting them to sue. They were backed by civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and media organizations that cited freedom of information laws ensuring open records.

In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said the provision of the Constitution in question, known as the "privileges and immunities clause," does not extend a sweeping right to all the information made available via freedom of information laws.

He noted that during the early years of the United States, there was no widespread assumption that the public could access records and that most freedom of information laws were passed relatively recently.

"There is no contention that the nation's unity foundered in their absence," Alito wrote.

Deepak Gupta, the attorney who argued the case for the challengers, said the trend in recent years has been for states to make data available to people from out-of-state.

"I don't think this decision is a reason to reverse course," he said.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement that Virginia taxpayers should not have to subsidize out-of-state requests made using the state's Freedom of information Act (FOIA).

"FOIA is an important tool to ensure open government," he said. "But responding to FOIA requests is a financial burden on Virginia taxpayers, because while state employees are looking through documents to respond to requests, they can't do the normal work for the citizens of the commonwealth they are paid to do."

The case is McBurney v. Young, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-17.

(Editing by Howard Goller, Mohammad Zargham and Andre Grenon)

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