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March 17, 2020 – At a recent Sunshine Week event, a Department of Justice spokesperson 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.
TRAC finds the underlying claim to be unsubstantiated and counterfactual. TRAC’s recent empirical study 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. Additionally, TRAC found that the increase in FOIA lawsuits was due to FOIA officials’ failure to respond to requests in a timely manner as required by law.
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.” The fact that FOIA requesters are waiting longer to file lawsuits suggests that requesters would, in fact, prefer to work with the government to avoid the expensive and lengthy process of litigation.
It is incumbent upon Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Murray to speak truthfully about FOIA practices. As 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.
TRAC has lodged a FOIA request with OIP seeking any and all evidence in the agency’s possession that provide support for the factual assertions contained in Murray’s statement that is quoted above.
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