Syracuse Research Center Files FOIA Suit Against DOJ
TRAC Suit Believed to be First to Seek Complete Records of all Civil Cases
Syracuse, N.Y. — The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) has filed a suit under the Freedom of Information Act requesting the Civil Division of the U.S. Justice Department to produce records concering all civil cases filed or pending in court since October 1, 1999. TRAC's action against the Civil Division was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. The Civil Division is the largest legal division in the U.S. Justice Department.
The filing of the suit on September 8 came after more than two years of administrative requests and appeals in which TRAC repeatedly sought seven years of case-by-case civil records, as well as current user manuals, a description of all regularly prepared reports based on the civil data and other related information from the division. While some records ultimately were released, they were incomplete and had been heavily consored even though they concerned cases the federal government had brought or defended in open court.
Plaintiffs in today's lawsuit are Susan B. Long and David Burnham, co-directors of TRAC, a non-partisan research center at Syracuse University's Whitman and Newhouse Schools that provides scholars, journalists, public interest groups, lawyers and others with government data enabling them to independently analyze the performance of the government. Long and Burnham are represented in the suit on a pro bono basis by William I Sussman and Thomas M. Susman of Ropes & Gray.
Although the Civil Division's reach is vast, this suit is thought to represent the first request for complete case-by-case information about all of the filings and pending actions of the division. Under the law, this unit within the Justice Department has two broad responsibilities. The first is to defend more than 100 federal agencies, their employees, members of Congress, and the federal Judiciary and others when their authority and actions are challenged in court. The second Civil Division responsibility is affirmative. In this area it brings civil actions in court to enforce an extremely wide range of laws involving such matters as protecting the environment and consumers; moving to seize the assets of suspected terrorist and drug dealers; acting against civil rights violators; and recovering hundreds of millions of dollars fraudulently obtained from the government by military contractors and health care providers.
"The Department's use of its civil authority is one of the government's most important and least examined enforcement powers," Long and Burnham said in a statement. "And for too long the public, the legal community and Congress have been unable to systematically examine its effectiveness." Under the law, civil actions by the Justice Department are one broad way the government has to enforce the nation's laws. If a civil action is successful, the government has several options to choose from, such as seeking money to compensate for the injury that was inflicted or asking the court to order the defendant to stop the action.
In the suit, Long and Burnham asked the court to declare the Department's refusal to produce the records a violation of the FOIA and to enter a mandatory injunction directing that the records be immediately provided TRAC in electronic format wherever available. The action also requested the court to award reasonable attorney's fees.
Although TRAC always seeks administrative remedies and prefers to avoid bringing court suits to gain access to public records because court actions too often take years to resolve, the current administration has strongly resisted providing information that the law requires be made public. As a result, TRAC now has other suits pending against the Justice Department, the IRS, and the Office of Personnel Management.
To read a copy of the lawsuit and obtain additional information, go to http://trac.syr.edu/foia/.