The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] earlier this week that groups seeking information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [text] can immediately appeal if their request is denied or unanswered. The court held that FOIA requires agencies to review responsive documents and to tell requesters what documents the agency will produce, what it will withhold, and why, within 20 days of receiving the request. Otherwise the agency risks incurring a challenge in federal district court. There is an option for an agency to extend that deadline from 20 days to 30 days under certain unusual circumstances. The opinion found that an agency cannot rely on the exhaustion requirement [DOJ backgrounder] to keep cases from being challenged in court. "[T]his scheme provides an incentive for agencies to move quickly but recognizes that agencies may not always be able to adhere to the timelines that trigger the exhaustion requirement." The DC Circuit reversed the DC District Court's [official website] grant of a motion for summary judgment [text] in favor of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website] against a FOIA request challenge filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) [official website]. CREW declared the ruling to be a "big win" [press release].
The US Supreme Court has dealt with two major FOIA cases recently. On January 19, 2011, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] on whether exemption 7(c) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) applies to corporations in FCC v. AT&T [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The exemption allows for an agency to withhold information in response to a FOIA request if the agency reasonably believes that information would violate the individual's privacy. The Court ruled [JURIST report] in March 2011 that the exemption did not apply to corporations. Also in March 2011, the Court ruled [JURIST report] 8-1 in Milner v. Department of the Navy [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the government may not withhold certain information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This case originated [JURIST report] when petitioner Glen Scott Milner filed an FOIA request with a US Navy magazine relating to the explosive safety quantity distance (ESQD) of explosives stored in a naval magazine near Milner's home.