FAA Administrator v. Robertson,
422 U.S. 255 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

FAA Administrator v. Robertson, 422 U.S. 255 (1975)

Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration v. Robertson

No. 74-450

Argued April 15, 1975

Decided June 24, 1975

422 U.S. 255


Respondents requested the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make available Systems Worthiness Analysis Program (SWAP) Reports which consist of the FAA's analyses of the operation and maintenance performance of commercial airlines. Section 1104 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 permits the FAA Administrator, upon receiving an objection to public disclosure of information in a report, to withhold disclosure when, in his judgment, it would adversely affect the objecting party's interest and is not required in the public's interest. The Administrator declined to make the reports available upon receiving an objection from the Air Transport Association, which claimed that confidentiality was necessary to the effectiveness of the program. Respondents sued in the District Court seeking, inter alia, the requested documents. The District Court held that the documents were "as a matter of law, public and non-exempt" within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court "insofar as appellants rely upon Exemption (3)" of the FOIA.

Held: The SWAP Reports are exempt from public disclosure under Exemption 3 of the FOIA as being "specifically exempted from disclosure by statute." Pp. 422 U. S. 261-267.

(a) Exemption 3 contains no "built-in" standard as do some of the exemptions under the FOIA, and the language is sufficiently ambiguous to require resort to the legislative history. That history reveals that Congress was "aware of the necessity to deal expressly with inconsistent laws," and, as indicated in its committee report, did not intend, in enacting the FOIA, to modify the numerous statutes "which restrict public access to specific Government records." Respondents can prevail only if the FOIA is read to repeal by implication all such statutes. To interpret "specific" as used in such committee reference as meaning that Exemption 3 applies only to precisely named or described documents would be asking Congress to perform an impossible task,

Page 422 U. S. 256

and would imply that Congress had undertaken to reassess every delegation of authority to withhold information that it had made before the passage of the FOIA in 1966, a task that the legislative history clearly shows it did not undertake. Pp. 261-266.

(b) The broad discretion vested by Congress in the FAA under § 1104 to withhold information from the public is not necessarily inconsistent with Congress' intent in enacting the FOIA to replace the broad standard of the public disclosure section of the Administrative Procedure Act. Congress could appropriately conclude that the public interest in air transport safety was better served by guaranteeing confidentiality of information necessary to secure from the airlines the maximum amount of information relevant to safety, and Congress' wisdom in striking such a balance is not open to judicial scrutiny. Pp. 422 U. S. 266-267.

162 U.S.App.D.C. 298, 498 F.2d 1031, reversed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 422 U. S. 268. DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 422 U. S. 268.

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