Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Judge Amy Berman Jackson (D.D.C.) yesterday ordered the Attorney General to turn over certain post-February 4, 2011, documents generated in the executive branch over how to respond to congressional inquiries into the Fast and Furious program.
But don't chalk this up as a win for Congress. Judge Jackson ruled that the documents had to be turned over because the government had already revealed much of the content, in the publicly-available DOJ Inspector General report on the program, and not because they weren't otherwise protected by executive privilege.
If anything, this ruling is a win for the administration. That's because Judge Jackson ruled that documents related to how the government would respond to congressional and press inquiries were covered by deliberative process privilege--even if they failed the balance (but only because the government had already released their content).
In the end, though, maybe "split decision" best describes the ruling.
Judge Jackson's ruling is just the latest in the long-running dispute between the House Committee on Oversight and the administration. Recall that the Committee sought administration documents related to the Fast and Furious program, including post-February 4, 2011, documents discussing how the administration should respond to congressional requests for documents. (February 4, 2011, is significant, because that's the date when DOJ denied that it used the gun-walking tactic. DOJ later acknowledged the program. The Committee then expanded its investigation to include the circumstances of DOJ's initial denial, and why it took so long to tell Congress that its initial denial was wrong.)
Judge Jackson ruled that post-February 4, 2011, documents related to how the government would respond to congressional inquiries were protected under the deliberative process prong of executive privilege. (Under D.C. Circuit law, deliberative process covers communications between executive branch officials other than the President that are "crucial to fulfillment of the unique role and responsibilities of the executive branch." (Traditional executive privilege covers communications only between executive branch officials and the President.)) That's because they were both predecisional and deliberative, and fell within the kinds of communications that were covered under other circuit rulings. She also said that DOJ's list of those documents sufficiently showed that they were covered by the deliberative process privilege.
But coverage doesn't end the inquiry. The deliberative process privilege (like its parent executive privilege) is a qualified privilege, which means that the courts balance the government's interest against any counter-veiling interest in obtaining the privileged material. Here, Judge Jackson ruled that the Committee had an undisputed counter-veiling interest in oversight and investigation, and that DOJ had already released the content through the publicly-available OIG report:
What harm to the interests advanced by the privilege would flow from the transfer of the specific records sought here to the Committee when the Department has already elected to release a detailed Inspector General report that quotes liberally from the same records? The Department has already laid bare the records of its internal deliberations--and even published portions of interviews revealing its officials' thoughts and impressions about those records. While the defense has succeeded in making its case for the general legal principle that deliberative materials--including the sorts of materials at issue here--deserve protection even in the face of a Congressional subpoena, it can point to no particular harm that could flow from compliance with this subpoena, for these records, that it did not already bring about itself.
Judge Jackson also ordered DOJ to turn over eight documents over which DOJ asserted no privilege. She declined to order DOJ to turn over yet other post-February 4, 2011, documents that the parties are still wrangling over. (They can't agree on the scope of the Committee's request, and the court declined to intervene.)