Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. DOJ

A FOIA lawsuit seeking proactive disclosure of the Office of Legal Counsel’s secret legal opinions

On August 15, 2018, the Knight Institute and the Campaign for Accountability filed an amicus brief in CREW v. DOJ, a FOIA lawsuit challenging the Office of Legal Counsel’s failure to affirmatively disclose its “formal written opinions.”

The Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC, is a component of the Department of Justice that issues legal opinions that bind federal agencies on matters of significant public concern. These opinions are the authoritative law of the government on subjects ranging from warrantless surveillance, to the torture of detainees, to retirement benefits for federal employees. Although these opinions often implicate questions of overwhelming public concern, the OLC has published only a fraction of them.

In its amicus brief, the Knight Institute argued that this practice violates FOIA’s “reading-room provision,” which obligates agencies to proactively disclose opinions or interpretations that have the force or effect of law. 

Status: Decided on April 30, 2019. In a 2–1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that CREW had failed to adequately plead that all OLC opinions have the force or effect of law.

Case Information: Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. DOJ, No. 18-5116 (D.C. Cir.).

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