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Court refuses to revive "Joe the Plumber" case

By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court refused on Tuesday to revive a lawsuit by Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the U.S. congressional candidate better known as "Joe the Plumber" who accused Ohio officials of illegally accessing his personal information after he confronted Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on Tuesday upheld a federal court's decision to dismiss Wurzelbacher's suit against Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley and two other department officials.

Wurzelbacher argued that the file-snooping was an attempt to stifle his political comments and violated his free-speech and privacy rights. But the appeals court disagreed, finding the improper database searches did not amount to a constitutional violation.

Four years ago, Wurzelbacher put himself in the national spotlight by questioning then-candidate Obama on tax policy as the future president campaigned door-to-door in an Ohio neighborhood. Republican 2008 president candidate John McCain and others embraced Wurzelbacher as a working-class everyman who would be hurt by Obama's tax plans.

After his rise to fame, Wurzelbacher sued in 2009, accusing Jones-Kelley and the other Ohio officials of authorizing searches on him in confidential state databases that tracked child support enforcement, welfare and unemployment benefit recipients. The searches were not related to any official agency business but rather were conducted in retaliation for speaking out against Obama, the suit alleged.

Jones-Kelley and another defendant resigned as a result of the searches, and the third lost his job.

"The complaint contains no information regarding what, if any, information was discovered. Moreover, if any information was obtained, it was never publicly disclosed," Judge Richard Griffin wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

"It can't be that government officials can rifle through your files without fear of being held accountable," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal group that filed the suit for Wurzelbacher. He said attorneys were reviewing the opinion and deciding whether to appeal the case further.

Earlier this month, Wurzelbacher won the Republican primary in his race for a seat in the House of Representatives from Ohio. He will face incumbent U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, in the November 6 election.

(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Will Dunham)

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