WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration pressed the Supreme Court yesterday for a ruling that would make it harder for government whistle-blowers to win lawsuits claiming retaliation.
Justices seemed conflicted on where to draw the line in protecting the First Amendment speech rights of more than 20 million public employees.
In an hourlong session, justices talked about the importance of preserving the privacy of some government work, such as the high court's deliberations.
But there were also concerns about concealing governmental misconduct.
''We live in a world where people are leaking things all the time," said Justice Stephen Breyer, adding that he was uncomfortable giving government employees blanket protection for things they say.
Other justices also struggled as they reviewed a lower court ruling in favor of a Los Angeles County prosecutor who said he was demoted and denied a promotion for trying to expose a lie by a county sheriff's deputy in a search warrant affidavit.
Bush administration lawyer Dan Himmelfarb said workers who feel they have been wrongly punished can file a civil service complaint.
He said that government employees are not entitled to free-speech coverage for things they say in the scope of their job, such as writing a memo.
Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, attorney for prosecutor Richard Ceballos, said that about 100 such lawsuits are filed each year and that employees should know they cannot be fired for speaking out when they see wrongdoing.
The First Amendment protects government workers from being punished for conduct involving a ''public concern" rather than personal, job-related issues.
The court is using this case to clarify the protection.
Stephen M. Kohn, a leader with the National Whistleblower Center, said that a victory for the government would mean ''whistleblowers who expose waste, fraud, and corruption will have less constitutional protection than Ku Klux Klan members who burn crosses on their front lawns."
The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Ceballos's speech, a memo questioning the affidavit, was constitutionally protected and that Ceballos could pursue a lawsuit.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed sympathetic to Ceballos, saying ''this is a person whose job includes being candid, serving justice, serving truth."
But many other justices appeared ready to side with the district attorney's office, which is backed in the case by the Bush administration.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the court's decision could affect inner workings of every government office at every level.
Justice Antonin Scalia said that there could be arguments that office gossip about extramarital affairs could be revealed to reporters on grounds that it was free speech.