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Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied
The news media are powerful players in the world of government transparency and public accountability. One important tool for ensuring public accountability is through invoking transparency mandates provided by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In 2020, news organizations and individual reporters filed 122 different FOIA suits to compel disclosure of federal government records—more than any year on record according to federal court data back to 2001 analyzed by the FOIA Project.
FOIA is an indispensable tool of democracy because it requires the government to release records to the public. FOIA requesters often have to sue to get the government to comply with this law. However, as this report from the FOIA Project, part of Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), shows, there is a growing backlog on adjudicating FOIA cases and delays in receiving public information. At the end of 2020, there were 1,683 FOIA cases pending in the federal courts, the highest on record. Many of those cases have been pending for over five years without a ruling.
The news media is one of the most important groups of FOIA requesters and litigators. Delays on FOIA cases are effectively undermining the public’s right to know and hampering the news media’s ability to get information for timely stories. Because of these delays, for example, FOIA requesters seeking records about Trump administration policies often will not obtain them until long after President Trump has left office. And unless matters change, the same will be true for FOIA requesters seeking records about the new Biden administration’s policies.
Austin Kocher is a faculty fellow with TRAC, a research institute that uses FOIA requests to study the federal government. Key areas of Kocher’s current research at TRAC include federal immigration detention, enforcement and deportation, the immigration court system and trends within the federal criminal and civil courts.
Kocher offers the following perspective:
“FOIA is becoming undermined by endless delays. Federal officials increasingly ignore these deadlines, forcing FOIA requesters to take them to court. As a result, the number of FOIA lawsuits have been rising because federal agencies were often not responding at all. Now we see that federal judges are increasingly failing to rule in a timely manner when requesters are forced to file suit to enforce FOIA requirements. This presents a significant barrier to government transparency and accountability.”
Members of the media looking to request an interview with TRAC researchers should contact:
Director of Media Relations, Division of Communications and Marketing
T 202.227.9250 | firstname.lastname@example.org