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High court throws out case over disclosure of British extradition letter

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Dec 3, 1999    

High court throws out case over disclosure of British extradition letter

  • Without hearing arguments, the Supreme Court ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) to vacate its decision that would have required release of a British government letter, which the Clinton Administration argued would have threatened national security.

The Supreme Court on Dec. 3 threw out a case — three days before it was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the matter — that would have required disclosure of a letter from the British Home Office to the State Department.

The Court summarily dismissed the appeal as moot and vacated the appellate court’s decision in the case. The entire text of the order reads:

“United States, et al. v. Weatherhead, Leslie. The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with directions to order the vacation of the judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington and to dismiss the case as moot. Justice Scalia dissents.”

The Clinton Administration had argued that release of the letter would damage national security by threatening the confidentiality of communications from foreign governments. However, it released the letter on Nov. 23 after the Home Office agreed that nothing in it needed to remain confidential. A lower court had characterized the letter as “innocuous” and incapable of “causing harm to the national defense or foreign relations of the United States,” the standard for exempting information under the federal Freedom of Information Act for national security reasons.

In a motion filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 23, the government stated that it learned for the first time from a Nov. 19 Court filing that Weatherhead — the attorney who requested the letter about the extradition of a client he was defending — had received a correspondence from the British consul in Seattle in 1994 “that disclosed much of the substance of the letter that is the subject of this [Freedom of Information Act] case.”

According to the government’s motion, the British Home Office requested that the State Department release the letter in light of the consul’s letter, and the State Department “concurs in the British government’s judgment in light of these new circumstances, and has accordingly declassified the letter.”

Weatherhead conceded that the case was moot and agreed it should be dismissed, but argued that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling should not be set aside, leaving intact its finding that communications from foreign governments are not automatically exempt from disclosure.

(United States v. Weatherhead; Counsel for Weatherhead: Charles J. Cooper, Washington, D.C.)

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