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Justices say states can limit access to public records

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday said states are free to allow public records access only to their own citizens, delivering a blow to freedom of information advocates who had challenged a Virginia law.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said two out-of-state men did not have a right to view the documents. Various other states, including Tennessee, Arkansas and Delaware, have similar laws, although some do not enforce them.

The men, Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert, had claimed the restrictions violated a provision of the U.S. Constitution that requires states to treat non-residents the same as residents.

McBurney, a former Virginia resident, was seeking documents relating to a family dispute with his ex-wife. Hurlbert runs a California-based business that seeks real estate tax records on behalf of private clients.

The state rebuffed requests from both men, prompting them to sue. They were backed by civil liberties groups which included the American Civil Liberties Union and media organizations that cited freedom of information laws ensuring open records.

In the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said the provision of the Constitution in question, known as the "privileges and immunities clause," does not extend a sweeping right to all the information made available via freedom of information laws.

He noted that during the early years of the United States, there was no widespread assumption that the public could access records and that most freedom of information laws were passed relatively recently.

"There is no contention that the nation's unity foundered in their absence," Alito wrote.

Deepak Gupta, the attorney who argued the case for the challengers, said the trend in recent years has been for states to make data available to people out-of-state.

"I don't think this decision is a reason to reverse course," he said.

A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who defended the law, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The case is McBurney v. Young, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-17.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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