Reporters Committee asks court to uphold judicial scrutiny of federal FOIA denials

Press Release | October 31, 2012
Reporters Committee asks court to uphold judicial scrutiny of federal FOIA denials

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 32 media organizations, has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to uphold the judiciary’s authority to review federal agency classification decisions when considering appeals to Freedom of Information Act denials.

Calling the case of Center for International Environmental Law v. Office of the United States Trade Representative a “textbook example of a federal court performing its congressionally mandated role,” the Reporters Committee’s friend-of-the-court brief noted that the district court’s decision to order release of information the government sought to withhold under FOIA Exemption 1 (national security) was precisely the check against Executive power Congress had intended when it amended FOIA in 1974.

“Congress commanded courts — overriding a presidential veto to enact the amendments — that they must substantively review the legitimacy of classification claims made within the context of Exemption 1,” the brief argued. “And although such judicial scrutiny was to afford due weight to an agency’s classification determination — a recognition of the Executive’s primacy in areas of foreign affairs — such deference does not amount to a rubber stamp of agency action.”

The case began when an environmental organization used FOIA to obtain records regarding trade negotiations between the United States and 33 countries. The government withheld one document under Exemption 1, arguing that its release would harm national security and foreign policy interests.

After the trial court ordered the release of the document, the government appealed arguing, in part, that the district court exceeded its authority and cannot second-guess the Executive Branch on classification decisions regarding national security or foreign policy records.

“Judicial review of agency decisions to withhold records based on national security claims is a crucial procedural check against overzealous classification determinations that may be motivated by Executive Branch self-interests,” said Mark Caramanica, the Reporters Committee’s Freedom of Information Director.

In addition to showing that Congress “commanded that courts are to serve as a check against Executive over-classification within the context of FOIA Exemption 1,” the Reporters Committee brief argued that the court’s action was “nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Indeed, the District Court for the District of Columbia has balanced the competing interests of national security and FOIA’s disclosure requirements under Exemption 1 more than 20 times in the last three years alone,” the brief noted.

A copy of the brief is online.

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· News: U.S. Trade Representative must release agreement documents

· Federal FOIA Appeals Guide