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Justice's outside contract for research database makes FOI Act inapplicable

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Justice's outside contract for research database makes FOI Act inapplicable02/12/96 WASHINGTON, D.C.--The Department of Justice's legal research database is not…

Justice’s outside contract for research database makes FOI Act inapplicable

02/12/96

WASHINGTON, D.C.–The Department of Justice’s legal research database is not available under the Freedom of Information Act because a contract with West Publishing Co., the private firm that provided information for the database, prohibited its transfer to anyone outside the government, a federal District Court ruled in mid-January.

Because of the terms of the contract, the Justice Retrieval and Inquiry System (JURIS) is not under the control of the agency and therefore is not an agency record covered by the FOI Act, the court ruled.

The court rejected the FOI Act complaint of Tax Analysts, a nonprofit group that publishes information about tax decision by federal courts. The government first denied Tax Analysts’ 1993 FOI Act request under the FOI Act’s proprietary exemption. However, when Tax Analysts sued for the information, the government dropped its claim that the material was exempt and argued instead that the database was not an agency record subject to the Act.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the Department of Justice and other agencies collected, organized and formatted federal court cases, regulations and digest material into JURIS for use by the federal government with some rental to state governments. In 1983 the Department contracted with West Publishing Co., which also runs a commercial legal research service, to do the JURIS work.

In the contract, West required that the government treat the data it provided “as proprietary information of West,” called itself “exclusive owners of all right, title and interest” in the database, and explicitly blocked use of West’s input to JURIS outside the government.

The government stopped using JURIS in 1993 and entered into a contract with West to use Westlaw, its commercial legal database. (Tax Analysts v. Department of Justice; attorney: William Dobriver, Warrenton, Va.)