486 U. S. 1
May 16, 1988
For federal crimes, a pre-sentence report is prepared after conviction for the benefit of the judge, prison staff, and parole board. The convicted person is allowed an opportunity to read the report prior to sentencing, and prior to a parole evaluation, but is otherwise not given access to it. Two prisoners eventually tried to obtain their pre-sentence reports under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).
The Court ruled 5-3 that FOIA gave the prisoners the right to get copies of the reports (Kennedy did not participate). In the majority opinion, Rehnquist showed that two exceptions to FOIA did not apply. Documents which were statutorily protected from disclosure could not be obtained under FOIA, but this exception did not apply because prisoners did indeed have two legal opportunities to read the reports. Another FOIA exception barred disclosure if the documents would ordinarily protected from discovery during a legal case. While third parties are ordinarily banned from getting access to pre-sentence reports, Rehnquist said this exception did not apply either, because the prisoner himself is given a legal right of access.
Scalia, joined by White and O’Connor, dissented for two reasons. First, the statues tacitly implied that the subjects of pre-sentence reports were never allowed to retain copies of it. Thus, because permanent access was indeed prohibited, the first FOIA exception most certainly applied. Second, previous FOIA cases made plain that FOIA disclosure should never turn on the identity of the requesting party. Thus, because third parties could not get pre-sentence reports, the second exception applied as well. Scalia definitely had the better opinion of the two, though he himself wondered whether there was any good policy reason to ban prisoners from having a personal copy of the report.