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U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of FOI access to tribal comments

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Mar 5, 2001    

U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of FOI access to tribal comments

  • In a unanimous opinion, the justices affirmed a federal appeals court decision that tribal comments to the federal government are not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice David Souter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 5 that Native American tribal documents submitted to the Department of the Interior are not exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information 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 communications. The department relied upon an exemption to the FOI Act for inter- or intra- agency records that would divulge the deliberative processes of government agencies.

The case arose out of a state and federal government adjudication of water rights to the Klamath River in Oregon and northern California. The department claimed that its trustee relationship with the tribe made any comments from the tribe inter-agency records that could be protected under the deliberative process privilege or, in some cases, the attorney-client privilege. The justices disagreed that the trustee relationship warranted a diversion from the open records law.

In affirming the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), the Court said that any communication from a tribe to the department “would be pressing its own view of its own interest” with the department, “(e)ven if there were no rival interests at stake.” This interest, Souter wrote, prevents the categorization of tribal communications with the government as inter- or intra-agency records. Interpreting the statute otherwise would not “serve FOIA’s mandate of broad disclosure,” he said.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists joined the Reporters Committee brief.

(Department of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association; Counsel for Association: Andrew Hitchings, Sacramento, Calif.) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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