Top court skeptical of paper’s argument over food stamp data

Food Marketing Institute lawyer Evan Young speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court after the high court heard arguments in the supermarket trade association’s case Monday, April 22, 2019, in Washington. FMI is arguing that the government shouldn’t release data on the government's food assistance program, previously known as food stamps, that’s being sought by South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper. The paper wants to know how much money goes annually to each store that participates in the government’s $65 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)
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The Supreme Court on Monday seemed inclined to rule against a South Dakota newspaper seeking data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps.

The high court was hearing arguments in a case originally brought by the Argus Leader newspaper, which is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. The paper wants to know how much money goes annually to each store that participates in the government’s $65 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Argus Leader says the data is public and shows citizens how the government is spending their tax money. A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues it is confidential.

At arguments, both conservative and liberal justices suggested skepticism about the Argus Leader’s contention on the meaning of the word “confidential.”

As a result, the newspaper’s best hope of winning may rest on a question about the group that brought the case to the high court, the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade association. Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the group didn’t have the right to pursue the case.

The issue she raised has to do with the fact that the Argus Leader’s request for information was made to the U.S. government, and it was the government that initially blocked the information’s release and defended that decision in court. But after a court ruled against the government, it said it would not pursue the case further and would instead release the information.

At that point, the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute stepped in to continue the fight. Sotomayor indicated that was an issue.

“The government chose not to appeal. It chose … to turn it over. Why aren’t you bound by that decision?” Sotomayor asked Food Marketing Institute lawyer Evan Young.

The Trump administration is backing the group in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.

If the court gets past the fact that it’s the Food Marketing Institute pursuing the case, it will then have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act. The act gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions.

In the Argus Leader’s case, the government argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by a section of the law that tells officials to withhold “confidential” ”commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties. The question for the court is what “confidential” means.

The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.q