Allan Favish is on a mission. The California lawyer wants to
expose what he believes is a government coverup involving the July
1993 death of Vincent Foster, deputy White House counsel.
He even has an idea how to expose the coverup: by gaining access,
through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to 10 color
photographs taken by police shortly after Mr. Foster's body was
discovered in a national park in Virginia.
There's just one problem. The government is unwilling to release
the photographs, as are Foster's surviving family members, who say
public disclosure and distribution of the photos would violate the
family's right to privacy and force them to relive the morbid
episode a decade later.
Wednesday, the issue arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the
justices are being asked to decide whether the public's right to
know certain government information outweighs any privacy rights of
a dead person and surviving family members.
The case has major implications for American news organizations
and government watchdogs who often battle officials and agencies for
access to government-held information. It also has major
implications for the state of privacy in the US. As such, it
represents a classic struggle between a citizen's right to know what
his government is up to versus another citizen's right to be left
Clarifying the rights of the deceased
The case, Office of Independent Counsel v. Favish, is significant
because it offers the court an opportunity to clarify whether a dead
individual has a right to privacy that extends after death to
surviving family members. The case is also important because it
could help establish how much evidence, if any, is necessary to
overcome privacy concerns to force the government to disclose
information under the Freedom of Information Act.
"When a high-ranking government employee dies a violent death,
the public has a right to know if that death occurred in the manner
claimed by the government," says Mr. Favish in his brief to the
Lawyers for Foster's widow and sister view the issue differently.
"Favish's ghoulish attempt to obtain and publicize photographs of
Vince Foster lying dead in Fort Marcy Park is not supported by any
legitimate public interest," says Washington lawyer James Hamilton,
in his brief to the court.
Since Foster's death, there have been five official
investigations, including two by independent counsels. They have
generated thousands of pages of evidence, testimony, and analysis,
and more than 100 photographs. All five investigations reached the
same conclusion: that Foster committed suicide.
Conspiracy theories and disclosure
Despite these investigations, some conspiracy theorists believe
Foster may have been murdered.
In his brief to the court, Favish details a series of questions
that he says were unresolved or ignored in the government's
For example, he says the first person to find Foster dead did not
recall seeing a gun in Foster's hand, as reported later by federal
agents. And he says a paramedic reported seeing a small bulletlike
entrance wound on the right side of Foster's neck, a wound
inconsistent with a single self-inflicted gunshot as described in
"The public's interest in disclosure outweighs the asserted
privacy interest because the government's reports are demonstrably
untrustworthy," says the Favish brief. …