It might be fun to have a beer with Chief Justice John Roberts, but God spare me from ever having to play Scrabble against him.
The constant in Roberts' career is that he is, well, a word nerd, enamored of dictionaries, derivations, grammatical parsing, and fine points of usage. Those skills were on display today in the Court's decision in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., in which the Court unanimously decided (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself) that the words "personal privacy" in the Freedom of Information Act do not cover a giant corporation (PDF).
AT&T had overcharged schools and libraries under a special FCC-regulated program designed to help them get telecommunications services at a reduced rate. The FCC requested bucketloads of corporate documents to determine how what penalty to impose on the company. AT&T's competitors filed a FOIA request for the documents.
Routine so far. But AT&T asked the agency to block disclosure under exemption 7(c) of the Act, which protects documents that could "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The FCC rejected this argument, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals bought it. Both FOIA and the federal Dictionary Act say that the word "person" can mean an individual or a corporation, the court below noted. Because "person" is "the root from which the statutory word . . . is derived, . . . [i]t would be very odd indeed for an adjectival form of a defined term not to refer back to that defined term."