WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge tore into the government Monday for trying to vacate court orders that denied privilege over records on the botched gun-running operation known as Fast and Furious.
“The fact that this unique dispute involving the production of a specific set of records … has been resolved does not diminish the importance of the fundamental legal questions that arose along the way,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote. “And the parties have not articulated any reason why the court’s opinions on those broad subjects – which were shaped by its consideration of the thorough briefing and skilled argument by both sides – should simply evaporate.”
Together with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which initiated the underlying lawsuit, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had fought to vacate orders in the case from 2014 and 2016 on the basis that the dispute has been mooted in March by a settlement.
Jackson told the parties Monday, however, that their celebration of this agreement “rings hollow.”
Indeed, “the only real change in circumstance since the filing of the appeal has been the change in political leadership at the Department of Justice in the wake of the presidential election,” Jackson wrote. “This suggests that the primary, if not the sole, objective of the conditional settlement and the pending motion is to erase the court’s prior rulings.”
Citing the social value of precedent, Jackson also rejected the assertion that the orders will be considered “binding on other district judges.”
“Judges find other judges’ opinions to be helpful when they are considering difficult questions, even if they ultimately disagree with them, and that is one reason why these rulings should remain on the books,” her ruling concludes. “Also, the concordance between the two opinions – written by different judges, at times when different political parties were in control of the House and were running the Department of Justice – is a powerful illustration of the fact that under the Constitution, the rule of law endures even when power changes hands, and no matter which party’s interests are affected by its application. This is why the mere fact that the leadership of the Department of Justice has changed should not be deemed to be a circumstance that warrants extraordinary equitable relief, and it is yet another reason that the public interest would not be served by vacatur in this case.”
Put in place by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms during the Obama administration, Operation Fast & Furious was intended to root out drug cartels in Mexico by allowing straw purchasers to sell them guns.
A congressional audit of the operation ultimately found, however, that roughly 2,000 guns slipped through the agency’s fingers. In 2010, two such assault rifles were found at the scene of a firefight with armed bandits that left Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry dead.
The House Oversight Committee subpoenaed a set of documents related to the investigation after President Barack Obama claimed executive privilege, and it later voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
Representatives for the Justice Department and the House General Counsel’s office have not responded to emails requesting comment on Jackson’s ruling.