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U.S. Supreme Court to hear case over access to tribal comments

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         OREGON         Freedom of Information         Nov 2, 2000    

U.S. Supreme Court to hear case over access to tribal comments

  • A water rights dispute between an American Indian tribe and local irrigation groups could determine whether records of communications between the tribe and the government are open to public view.

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted a case involving access to communications from American Indian tribes to the Department of the Interior about water rights to the Klamath River basin in Oregon. Although the media are not a party to the lawsuit, the outcome of the case could dictate access to similar records in future requests by the press.

The Department of Interior appealed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Portland (9th Cir.) that granted access to the Klamath Water Users Protective Association, a group of irrigation district interests. The Reporters Committee plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing in support of the association’s argument that the comments on tribal interests are part of the public record.

The case arose from an attempt by the Department of Interior to draft a permanent plan of water allocation for the Klamath River basin. Several American Indian tribes and a local irrigation district are contesting the water rights to the river basin.

The Department of the Interior held several public meetings and asked interested parties to submit recommendations for the plan. When the tribes requested copies of communications exchanged between the irrigation districts and the government, the department willingly handed over the documents. However, when the irrigation districts sought similar communications between the tribes and government, the department denied their request.

The department claimed that the status of tribes as dependent nations of the United States made records submitted by the tribes inter- or intra-agency records of the department. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, such documents are exempted from mandatory disclosure.

A magistrate judge and a district court agreed with the department and closed the records to public access under the FOIA exemption. But in its August 1999 decision, the court of appeals recognized that because the tribes had an interest in the outcome of the department’s plan, the tribal communications could not be intra- or inter- agency records, according to the court.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of the case in early October and oral arguments will be heard in January.

(Department of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association) CC

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