Supreme Court: Law Requiring Social Security Numbers Constitutional

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court has upheld a state law that requires applicants for wildlife conservation licenses to include the last four digits of their Social Security numbers on the application.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association had challenged the requirement, arguing it unconstitutionally infringes upon an applicant’s fundamental right to privacy.

District Judge Ed McLean in Missoula rejected the argument and the Supreme Court, in a 5-0 ruling issued on Tuesday, upheld McLean’s ruling.

The Supreme Court said the state legitimately asks for the information to comply with federal requirements that make it easier to track down people who owe back child support.

The ruling, written by Justice William Leapart, said the “state’s interests … included continued receipt of federal funding for child support enforcement programs and funding for the state’s (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) program, access to federal tools for locating parents to establish paternity and enforce child support obligations, and support for the welfare of children in Montana. We conclude that these are legitimate state interests.”

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, disagreed, saying the court’s ruling showed “the constitutional rights that the people have reserved to themselves from government interference may be sold to a high bidder by state government if the price is right and the court-determined impact is low.”

The state constitution says: “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed upon without the showing of compelling state interest.”

The MSSA’s appeal argued that qualifying for certain federal monies cannot be considered a “compelling interest,” and that the funds could be replaced with state money.

The court notes the right to privacy protects information if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding that information.

Leaphart’s ruling recalls an earlier federal court ruling that a Social Security number is a piece of information “that citizens regularly provide to government entities.” It also notes that Montana residents provide that information for voter registration, tax purposes, employment and retirement purposes, occupational licenses, marriage licenses and driver’s licenses and registration.

“It strains logic to suppose that the state must present a narrowly tailored, compelling interest to collect a personal identification number that the federal government assigned in the first place,” Leaphart wrote.

The ruling also noted that the MSSA plaintiffs object to providing the last four digits of their Social Security numbers to clerks at private establishments, fearing identity theft. The justices said that can be remedied by applying for conservation licenses directly with the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The MSSA appeal also argued that conservation licenses aren’t “recreational licenses” and shouldn’t fall under the law.

The high court stated that a conservation license is a prerequisite to a hunting or fishing license and that the Montana Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have both observed that hunting is recreation.

Marbut said the only remaining alternative for the plaintiffs will be to ask the Legislature to repeal the state law. The high court ruling noted that similar efforts have failed beginning with a special legislative session in 2000 and during the 2001, 2003 and 2005 regular sessions.