updated 3/30/2004 11:32:50 AM ET 2004-03-30T16:32:50

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the government does not have to release 11-year-old photographs from the suicide of Clinton administration lawyer Vincent Foster.

The unanimous decision makes it more difficult to use a public records law to access law enforcement records. Justices said the privacy rights of survivors outweigh the benefits of releasing some photographs.

A California attorney had sought the pictures, saying they might prove that Foster was murdered as part of a White House cover-up.

"Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.

Several investigations ruled death a suicide
Multiple investigations determined that a depressed Foster shot himself in the head at a Civil War-era park in Virginia in 1993.

The 48-year-old longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton was handling several personal legal matters for them at the time.

Road map to the Supreme CourtFoster’s family had joined the government in fighting the release of death scene pictures to attorney Allan Favish. Favish sought the photos under the Freedom of Information Act. He argued that the law did not give any special privacy rights to relatives.

The Bush administration maintained that a victory for Favish, known as a Clinton antagonist, could lead to the release of other sensitive information, like autopsy photographs of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and pictures of unidentified remains from the Sept. 11 attacks, for example.

The Supreme Court ruled that a part of the law that allows the government to withhold records that could “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” applies to the survivors.

Kennedy said that means child molesters and murders cannot use the law to get photographs of deceased victims.

Court takes broad view of ‘personal privacy’
“We find it inconceivable that Congress could have intended a definition of ‘personal privacy’ so narrow that it would allow convicted felons to obtain these materials without limitations at the expense of surviving family members’ personal privacy,” he wrote.

It was an important clarification of the federal law that allows reporters and others to get some unclassified records.

In another decision announced Tuesday, the court ruled unanimously that government agents can search and even dismantle a car’s gas tank as part of drug and other smuggling interdiction at the nation’s borders.

People crossing the border have less expectation of privacy than elsewhere, and searching the inner reaches of a car is not the same thing as a strip search or other intrusive search of the driver, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court.

The decision reversed a ruling by the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals in California, which said that officers can visually inspect gas tanks, but not dismantle them unless they have reason to suspect wrongdoing.

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