Ethan Barton on May 31, 2017
Liberal activists are bombarding President Donald Trump with Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuits seeking to force the executive branch to release documents The Daily Caller News Foundation’s (TheDCNF) Investigative Group has learned.
More than 250 FOIA lawsuits have been filed against the Trump administration since the President’s Jan. 20, 2017, inauguration – a 27 percent increase from last year and a 61 percent increase compared to the same timeframe following former President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration, TheDCNF analysis found.
(Chart Credit: Ethan Barton/DCNF)
“This is a result of the progressive groups starting to coalesce around litigation,” Access Reports editor and publisher Harry Hammitt told TheDCNF. “It’s really groups more on the left side of politics … trying to throw their hat into the ring as far as FOIA litigation is concerned.”
“Judicial Watch seems to be the only obvious conservative group that is continuing at a strong pace,” Hammitt said. Hammitt has been writing and reporting on FOIA issues for three decades.
TheDCNF analyzed data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC)’s FOIA Project, which Hammitt regularly annotates.
Additionally, 60 media plaintiffs have filed 45 new FOIA lawsuits since Dec. 1, 2016, TRAC reported Wednesday. The New York Times filed more than any other media outlet with six suits, while BuzzFeed investigative reporter Jason Leopold was the most prolific individual filer with seven.
The increase in FOIA lawsuits likely doesn’t reflect a decrease in government transparency.
“I always go back to the idea that FOIA is pretty much set in this point in time,” Hammitt said. “Agencies are unlikely to change their implementation practices drastically.” (RELATED: Trump Could Tear Down Obama’s FOIA Secrecy. Here’s Why He Probably Won’t.)
“I think there are more FOIAs being filed at this point,” he continued. “Beating agencies over the head with FOIA requests has become kind of a … tool.”
The Trump administration has faced a steady increase of FOIA lawsuits since inauguration. Only 21 FOIA suits were filed in January after the inauguration – six less than Obama saw over the same timeframe in 2016.
But lawsuits filed against the Trump administration quickly outpaced those filed against Obama last year. Eighty-one FOIA suits were filed from May 1 to May 25 – nearly 70 percent more than Obama faced, TheDCNF analysis found.
In fact, there could be 579 FOIA suits filed by the end of fiscal 2017 – up from 512 the prior year, according to a recent TRAC report.
“Note that FOIA filings tend to exhibit considerable month-to-month variability,” the report said. “Thus, actual totals based on records covering the entire year could well turn out to be higher or lower.”
The FOIA suits seek an “amazing diversity in topics,” ranging from government policies or actions, Trump’s executive orders, border searches and records on the missile attack on Syria, the report said.
Hammitt predicted that the number FOIA suits filed would continue to increase.
“It may remain at an increased constant level,” he told TheDCNF. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see over 20 cases filed per week.”
About 14 cases on average were filed against the Trump administration per week from Jan. 20 to May 25 – up from 11 during the same timeframe last year, TheDCNF’s analysis shows. But recent weeks have already shown a significant increase, hitting 27 and 23 during two one-week periods in May.
The recent increase is at least partially due to the nature of FOIA. Agencies have 20 days to respond before a requestor can sue. Agencies are just beginning to hit that deadline, so requestors can only now start suing, according to Hammitt.