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Published on 03/21/2006

Court Rejects Data Quality Act Case Brought by Industry

A recent appeals court decision has dealt a blow to what many consider frivolous challenges to sound science made under the Data Quality Act (DQA). On March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Salt Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce under DQA, when judges found that the act does not allow for judicial review and that the plaintiffs had not show injury and thus lacked standing. The suit requested court intervention on a 2003 challenge by the plaintiffs with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), requesting underlying data on a sodium study the institute had conducted.

The industry associations challenged, in both their 2003 data quality petition and the lawsuit, a grant-funded study which, they claim, "directly states and otherwise suggests that reduced sodium consumption will result in lower blood pressure in all individuals." The Salt Institute, an association of salt manufacturers that advocates on behalf of its members, and the Chamber of Commerce requested the release of raw data that supported the study's findings, accusing the study of not properly accounting for race, age, sex, and other such factors and of therefore violating DQA.

Writing for a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Judge Michael Luttig--once on the short list of President Bush's Supreme Court nominees--upheld a lower court's ruling, denying the reviewability of the data quality challenge.

The ruling was a definitive statement in the debate over whether DQA enables judicial review. The opinion of the court found the plaintiffs failed to establish "an invasion of a legal right" and thus an injury and concluded that "[t]he judgment of the district court dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction is affirmed."

Figure 1: The Salt Institute's Data Quality Odyssey

This case, set up as a test of DQA's authority, has been watched closely by both sides of the DQA debate. The initial challenge with the NHLBI, the division of the National Institute of Health charged with fighting diseases of the heart, blood, and lungs, was rejected under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) because the challenge sought only to obtain underlying survey data. The institute rejected the FOIA request because the data was collected by a federal grantee, not the government, and non-governmental entities are generally not subject to FOIA. The Salt Institute and the Chamber of Commerce appealed the agency decision, making clear their challenge was under the Data Quality Act, not FOIA, and alleging that they had suffered harm from the study. Once NHLBI rejected that appeal, the industry associations pursued legal recourse.

Soon after the court decision, talk turned to pursuing other DQA cases in the courts and amending DQA to allow for judicial review. Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) stated that she will consider introducing legislation to establish judicial review of DQA and may include it in a Paperwork Reduction Act reauthorization bill. The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness appears to be seeking another data quality challenge in the courts, in order to establish a counter precedent where a court finds DQA reviewable.

The Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Institute have three options for moving forward with the case. First, they can petition for a rehearing before the same three-judge panel. Second, they can submit an en banc petition, requesting a hearing before the entire Fourth Circuit. Finally, they can petition the Supreme Court to issue a writ of certiorari.