Immigration judges are career civil-service employees in the Department of Justice’s executive office. The judges preside over matters such as deportation, exclusion, removal and rescission proceedings for non-citizens charged with immigration law violations. The American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for records about complaints filed against immigration judges. The Department of Justice disclosed thousands of pages of records, but redacted (1) information that disclosed the identity of individual judges, and (2) information that was determined to be non-responsive to the specific request regarding judicial conduct. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the Department of Justice erred with respect to both categories of redactions. American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, 830 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2016). The Court concluded that the government’s across-the-board approach to redacting immigration judges’ names was improper and remanded the case for rehearing with a more particularized inquiry into the propriety of redacting individual judge’s names. With respect to redactions based on non-responsiveness, the Court found no basis in FOIA for such redactions. The government was without authority to redact information within the records on the basis of non-responsiveness when no statutory exemption shielded the information from disclosure.
The nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court prompted document requests to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The D.C. District Court recently upheld a DOJ determination that records from the office of the Solicitor General were exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The records either were privileged or were not “agency records” subject to disclosure. Media Research Center v. U.S. Department of Justice and Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Justice, 2011 WL 4852224 (Oct. 13, 2011).
In response to FOIA requests, DOJ began an electronic search of its files encompassing the dates of Justice Kagan’s tenure as Solicitor General. The search identified 1400 pages. After review, DOJ concluded that 86 pages were responsive to the requests under FOIA.
DOJ released 45 of the 86 pages, and withheld 41 pages under two theories: first, that they were not “agency records,” and second, that they fell under the “work product privilege” (exemption 5 to FOIA). DOJ released a log (often referred to as a “Vaughn Index”) providing its reasoning for every withheld or redacted document.
The federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) contains nine exemptions. Under the exemptions, the government can withhold information that might otherwise be available for disclosure. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)-(9). FOIA “Exemption 4” applies to “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged and confidential.” In a recent decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied Exemption 4 to Notices of Seizure issued by the United States Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) to an importer of merchandise potentially infringing on a U.S. trademark.. CBP had heavily redacted the Notices of Seizure in responding to a FOIA request.
For application of Exemption 4, the 9th Circuit requires a government agency to demonstrate the information to be withheld is “(1) commercial and financial information, (2) obtained from a person or by the government, (3) that is privileged or confidential.” (Watkins v. U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, No. 09-35996, 5/6/11). The Court found that the Notices contained “plainly commercial information, which discloses intimate aspects of an importers business such as supply chains and fluctuations of demand for merchandise.”
In a decision issued on May 16, 2011, the United States Supreme Court examined the meaning of the term “report” under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). (Schindler Elevator Corp. v. United States ex rel. Kirk, No. 10-188, 2011).
The case arose when Daniel Kirk, a Vietnam veteran, sued his former employer, Schindler Elevator, under the federal False Claims Act. He asserted that Schindler, a government contractor, had submitted false claims by failing to file Vietnam Veterans Act reporting forms that were required under Schindler’s government contract. Kirk had confirmed the lack of Vietnam Veterans Act reporting through a FOIA request.
The False Claims Act, however, has a “public disclosure bar.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A). That bar precludes a whistleblower suit based on information (including reports) obtained through a FOIA request. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and rejected an argument that the word “report” should receive a narrower meaning than simply “something that gives information.” The Supreme Court looked to the ordinary meaning of the word “report.” Citing dictionary definitions, the Supreme Court defined the term to include “something that gives information,” a “notification,” and “[a]n official or formal statement of facts or proceedings.” As a result, the disclosure of public records in response to a FOIA request constitutes a “report” and a False Claims Act case cannot be maintained based upon such a disclosure.
The March 30 edition of the New York Times reports that a research group in Michigan has made a public records request of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University for any e-mails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil, including any e-mails with reference to Rachel Maddow – the MSNBC talk show host.
Greg Schulz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors is quoted as asserting “We think this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”
Has the Obama Administration effected real change in FOIA responsiveness? A recent Associated Press article, claims that the federal Freedom of Information Act is unwieldy and difficult, and that only the most patient and persistent requesters actually obtain the sought-for information. The article is critical of agencies’ efforts in implementing President Obama’s promise to make government more open and release more information rapidly.
During an event sponsored for Sunshine Week, March 13-19, reported in the AP article, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli is quoted as stating that more records are going out unredacted than ever before. “Where we once might have looked at a document, noticed a piece that could be released, and redacted the rest, we’re now more often determining that we can release the whole thing,” Perrelli is quoted as saying. However, a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas Fitton of Judicial Watch, stated that the conservative watchdog group has “filed 44 lawsuits to force the Obama administration to comply with the law.”
The latest public records decision from the U.S. Supreme Court has put Western Washington on the map. The Court held 8-1 that Navy maps showing ammunition stockpiles at Indian Island (in Jefferson County, near Port Townsend) could not be withheld from disclosure under Exemption 2 of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Exemption 2 allows an entity to withhold records related to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
In Milner v. Department of the Navy, the Navy argued that release of the maps would threaten public safety; the maps depict distances where damage could result from hypothetical explosions in buildings where weapons, ammunition and explosives are stored. But as reported by the Kitsap Sun, public safety is the very reason the maps were requested by local activist Glen Milner, who wanted information about whether his community might be endangered by the ammunition supply.
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551-559, protects a corporation’s interest in “personal privacy.” In September of 2009, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of AT&T and against the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) in finding that FOIA’s law enforcement exemption protects a corporation’s interest in “personal privacy.” AT&T Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, 582 F.3d 490 (2009). The FCC has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case on January 19, 2011. See Court Weighs Whether Corporations Have Personal Privacy Rights, New York Times, January 19, 2011.
FOIA exempts from mandatory disclosure records collected for law enforcement purposes to the extent disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(C). FOIA does not define personal, but does define person as “an individual, partnership, corporation, association, or public or private organization other than an agency.” 5 U.S.C. § 551(2).
The FCC released the National Broadband Plan today, setting out ambitious goals for how the federal government conducts business in cyberspace. The Plan targets several concrete goals, including
- 100 million homes with affordable access to 100 megabit per second internet access.
- At least one institutional (e.g., hospital or university) connection at one gigabit per second in every community.
Closer to open local government’s home, the Plan’s “Civic Engagement” chapter may raise the bar for municipalities in providing access to records and officials. Although the Plan is directed to the federal government, citizens are likely to expect the same level of service from all government agencies, including their local city hall.
In a recent unpublished decision, a Washington State Court of Appeals addressed a Public Records Act request from the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County for records of the County’s Building and Planning Department. Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County v. County of Spokane, No. 27184-6 (C.A. Wa., Div. III, August 11, 2009).
While an unpublished decision, the Court’s analysis does provide some guidance for a government’s review of electronic records in response to a public record request. First, the Court looked to federal court decisions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to guide the the standard for judicial review of the government agency’s response to a request.
“The adequacy of the agency’s search is judged by a standard of reasonableness, construing the facts in the light most favorable to the requestor.”