WASHINGTON (CN) - The State Department's delay in releasing a cache of emails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stored on a private server has put a federal judge "between a rock and a hard place," the judge said Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras said he could order the agency to keep a Feb. 18 release deadline, leaving open the possibility of some sensitive emails finding their way into the public release.
But pushing back the release deadline would reward the government for being slow to realize outside agencies would need to look over some of the emails on Clinton's private email server, Contreras said.
While Contreras did not decide at Tuesday's status hearing which of the two unappealing options he would choose, he did demand State Department officials explain their slow release of the emails.
Contreras ordered the State Department to detail the process for reviewing documents by Wednesday, and tell him why those that have already gone through final review cannot be posted by the 18th.
He also demanded explanation of why the State Department did not realize until recently some of the documents would need outside agency review.
He further suggested the State Department should be prepared to produce some documents ahead of the Feb. 18 deadline.
"The department should expect to produce something on the 18th, if not sooner," Contreras said at Tuesday's hearing.
Last month the agency asked for a one-month extension to release the remaining emails after it realized outside agencies would need to review some of the documents before they could go online for the public to comb through.
Vice News reporter Jason Leopold, the plaintiff in the suit against the State Department, told Contreras in January the delay would push back the release until after several states voted in Democratic primaries, leaving those voters without key pieces of information.
Leopold filed the suit last year and Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state has been a recurring theme in her suddenly competitive race against Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination in this year's presidential election.
Tuesday's hearing was set on the day of the New Hampshire primary, which Sanders is expected to win.
While agencies are returning emails to the State Department "daily," Robert Prince, who represented the agency at Tuesday's hearing said there are still 3,700 documents that need to be released, about 2,000 of which are still at other agencies.
Prince went on to say 570 of the documents are past the State Department's legal and final review process, and could be online as soon as Feb. 18.
Early in the hearing Contreras was prepared to ask the State Department to post the documents that were past the final review process by Friday, but Prince said this would be unrealistic.
This delay seemed to confuse Contreras at Tuesday's status hearing, as he repeatedly asked Prince to explain why documents that are past the department's review process could take so long to put up for public review.
"It's not my system so I can't say for sure but that seems like an unreasonably long time to post something that is already past the clearances" Contreras said.
When Contreras suggested Leopold simply be allowed to come to the State Department to review the documents on a computer screen, Prince said this would take even longer than preparing them for release on the agency's website as they would need to provide a computer with limited access to the department's system just for the reporter.
Leopold's attorney, Ryan James, who called into the hearing by phone, suggested his client would prefer the State Department be allowed to skip the Feb. 18 partial production if it meant they could release all the remaining emails by Feb. 22, a week ahead of the current deadline.
But Contreras said the proposal was untenable, as some of the documents are with other agencies and their release is out of the State Department's hands. In a separate case concerning Clinton's use of a private email server, the State Department admitted Friday employees reviewing the documents had overlooked some emails that had been put in the agency's archives.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.