Watchdog Claims Justice Dept. Withholding Legal Opinions

WASHINGTON (CN) – A government watchdog claims in court the Justice Department is blocking its access to documents produced by its Office of Legal Counsel, memorandum that advise the attorney general, and by extension, the president, on questions of law.

In a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington claims the department’s refusal to provide access to the documents prevents the organization from carrying out its mission of informing the public of government affairs.

Moreover, it says the documents in question fall squarely under the Freedom of Information Act’s “reading room provision,” which “imposes a number of independent, affirmative obligations on executive branch agencies, including the obligation to ‘make available for public inspection and copying’ designated categories of records.”

The Office of Legal Counsel assists the attorney general in his position to legal adviser to the president. The core function of the OLC “is to provide controlling legal interpretations to executive branch officials on questions of law that are centrally important to the functioning of the federal government,” the complaint states.

“OLC issues opinions establishing the executive branch’s authoritative position on what is and is not legal on subjects ranging from immigration to warfare to spying on civilians,” the plaintiff nonprofit said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

The group says it has repeatedly sought access to Office of Legal Counsel’s opinions through FOIA requests, but that the Justice Department has repeatedly denied those requests.

“One well-known memo justified the use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques like waterboarding, and OLC may have weighed-in recently on the president’s immigration executive orders and other key issues,” the groups news release said. “These decisions are secret law, as they govern the operations of the government without the American people knowing of their existence or what is in them.”

“This lawsuit is part of a long effort to give the public access to these vital opinions,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in the same written statement. “The law is clear that the government must release this secret law to the public, and we are asking the court to enforce the law since the Department of Justice will not.”

The nonprofit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief as well as access to the documents.

The lawsuit was filed by Adam Rappaport, the group’s in-house attorney.

A representative of the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.