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Holding the Government Accountable

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Fired Air Marshal

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 today that Robert MacLean, a former U.S. Air Marshal, did not break the law when he blew the whistle on the federal government’s plan to reduce security on some long-distance flights.

The victory for MacLean upholds a lower court decision in a decade-long legal fight that started after his supervisors at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) retaliated against him for exposing a plan in 2003 to remove air marshals from some flights in order to save money. The cutbacks were planned at a time when the government was aware of a looming terrorist hijacking plot.

“Robert MacLean took a courageous stand and put the safety of the flying public above his own career. We’re thrilled that justice has finally prevailed,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said.

MacLean expressed his feelings on Twitter:

I'm very honored & grateful that #SCOTUS decided on this case. Great people from NGOs, @US_OSC, Congress, & the courts made this happen.

— Robert J. MacLean ✈ (@rjmaclean) January 21, 2015

The TSA fired MacLean in the wake of news coverage of the cutbacks. However, the public outrage about the cutbacks prompted the TSA to ditch its plan to remove the air marshals.

At the crux of the case was a TSA text message that MacLean had received announcing the cutbacks and which he subsequently forwarded to an MSNBC reporter. The text message, which had not been labeled sensitive, was retroactively classified by the TSA.

The Project On Government Oversight, which has long advocated on MacLean’s behalf, filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court that argued that MacLean had the constitutional right to warn the public about the danger to its safety.

The Associated Press reported that Chief Justice John Roberts agreed:

Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court that nothing in federal law prohibits MacLean from doing what he did. The government has raised legitimate security concerns, Roberts said, but they must be addressed by the president through an executive order or Congress by changing the law. "Although Congress and the president each has the power to address the government's concerns, neither has done so. It is not our role to do so for them," he wrote.

However, MacLean's legal fight is not over. The ruling means that the Merits Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which had earlier ruled that MacLean did not qualify for whistleblower protections, will now have to hear the case on its merits.