Freedom of Information Act requesters can claim victory in the only FOI Act case heard by the United States Supreme Court this session. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice David Souter, the Court ruled today that comments from Native American Tribes to the U.S. Department of the Interior advocating the tribes’ rights to water are available to the public under the FOI Act.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Klamath Water Users Protective Association, which was denied access by the Department of the Interior to tribal comments under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for inter- or intra- agency records that would divulge the deliberative processes of government agencies.
“Although this case did not involve media plaintiffs, it certainly could have affected the media’s ability to get access to information about Native American tribes had the court ruled differently,” said Lucy Dalglish, Reporters Committee Executive Director. “But the court ruled in favor of access and the core purpose of the Freedom of Information Act — public disclosure of government records.”
The case arose out of a state and federal government adjudication of water rights to the Klamath River Basin in Oregon. The Department of Interior claimed that its trustee relationship with the tribes made any records of tribal communications inter-agency records. The Court disagreed with this contention, saying that “[e]ven if there were no rival interests at stake” in the Klamath water rights adjudication, tribal comments to the Department of the Interior “would be pressing its own view of its own interest in its communications” with the Department. That interest prevents the communications from being inter- or intra-agency according to the opinion.
“This is a victory for reporters who cover Native American tribes, especially those reporters that cover the water rights disputes in the Pacific Northwest,” said Dalglish. “Water rights are such a vital part of the culture of the Pacific Northwest and it is necessary for the public to know how the government makes its decisions in these adjudications.”
She also noted that the decision represents a broad victory for FOI requesters generally. They may continue to insist that exemptions to disclosure be read narrowly.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists joined the friend of the court brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The brief is available at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/klamath.html