Skip to content

Department of Justice Finds No Data for Its Claims of FOIA Requesters Rushing into Court

by FOIA Project Staff on April 16th, 2020

FOIA previously reported that recently a Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesperson inaccurately claimed that FOIA applicants are now quicker to litigate, then blamed overly-litigious requesters for straining the workloads of FOIA professionals and bogging down ordinary citizens’ FOIA requests. These claims directly contradicted the FOIA Project’s findings that litigants were, in fact, waiting longer to litigate. TRAC submitted a FOIA request on March 16 asking for documentation substantiating the DOJ’s claims. We requested any records in the Department’s possession that provided support for this statement, as well as any concrete statistics on the number of days between requests, responses (where any had occurred), and when suits were filed that would document the actual lawsuit filing behavior of requesters.  

In a letter dated April 13, the agency replied that it had conducted a search and could find no data or other statistics concerning whether or not FOIA requesters were rushing into court.   

The letter went on to assert that to the extent our request was for any agency records that would support the spokesperson’s statement, our request did not require a response because the records weren’t “reasonably described.” The letter did say it would search for “specific records utilized in preparing” the actual statement but that it needed more time to “search in and/or [for] consultation with another Office.”

The March 12, 2020, Sunshine Week event was intended to celebrate the Freedom of Information Act.  Instead, the spokesperson for the Department of Justice used the event to use unsubstantiated claims to justify the disparagement of FOIA requesters. The spokesperson, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire Murray, claimed that FOIA requesters were bringing lawsuits “nearly immediate[ly].”

This claim contradicts TRAC’s study that found that not only were requesters not jumping into court immediately, requesters were actually waiting on average six months—a full month longer than they had five years ago—before filing a FOIA lawsuit. Equally concerning is how the unsubstantiated and counterfactual claim was used to sow unnecessary division between, on the one hand, citizens who seek remedy in court when the government fails to comply with the law, and, on the other, government staff and “ordinary citizens.”

Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire Murray oversees the Office of Information Policy. Because of the important role that the OIP plays, it is incumbent on her to speak truthfully about FOIA practices. When we celebrate Sunshine Week, one would hope public statements about FOIA practices are amply supported by the evidence, particularly statements that cast aspersions upon groups of FOIA requesters and sow unnecessary division between members of the public and between the public and government professionals.

The FOIA Project exists to provide detailed, fact-based insight about the government’s handling of FOIA requests and to make this data available to the public and to government agencies alike. The value of the FOIA Project’s research is illustrated by our ability to publish timely research, which can be used to identify inaccuracies and clarify misperceptions such as those above.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Skip to toolbar