Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Supreme Court hears oral arguments in FOIA case to decide if SNAP payments to retailers are public record

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a long-running case about whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture must release retail sales data about how much of their business comes from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has been pursuing the case since 2011, arguing that the public has a right to know where and how taxpayer dollars are spent. Retailers don't want to comply with the paper's request, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, since it would likely affect public perception: "Public perception of major retailers is at stake, because releasing a breakdown of sales data would undoubtedly open a new debate about how retailers rely on SNAP as a major share of their sales. Walmart, for example, has long been criticized for taking in a large share of SNAP dollars, while many of its employees utilize the program. Amazon is increasingly facing similar scrutiny," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

"Much of the argument in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media centered on the meaning and intent of the word “confidential” and its use in the Freedom of Information Act," Jonathan Ellis reports for the Argus Leader. "The justices appeared conflicted between upholding the spirit of the Freedom of Information Law, and the desire to stick to the literal meaning of the word 'confidential.'"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said one of the goals of the FOIA was to make information public that officials didn't want to reveal, but Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that the word "confidential" apparently had another definition in a different section of the FOIA law, and questioned why the court should give the same word two different meanings, Ellis reports.

"The Argus Leader has argued that money paid to retailers selling groceries in the SNAP program are spending records of taxpayer payments," Ellis reports. "Retailers argued that the taxpayer payments should be treated as confidential commercial information and withheld from the public under an exemption to FOIA that protects trade secrets and confidential financial information."

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