The number of lawsuits filed against the federal government over access to records is at an all-time high, according to a report released Tuesday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a federal information research center at Syracuse University.
The clearinghouse’s data shows that 63 lawsuits were filed in April, the most in any month in the past 25 years, and May is on track to match or break April’s totals.
“There’s indication that a lot of people are seeking records about current government policy and the fact that they are going to court means they don’t feel like they’ve gotten the records they need,” said Susan Long, co-director of TRAC.
Many lawsuits target information related to key issues of the Trump administration, including those seeking information about executive orders and others seeking records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Lawsuits are filed when a requester has exhausted the appeals process or never received any response to a FOIA request. One of the few ways to hold an agency accountable when it refuses to release public records, is to take it to court.
“Just because you have a (FOIA) law doesn’t necessarily mean that people comply with it. Normally you have an enforcement mechanism,” Long said. “And here it’s the case that the government is supposed to comply with the law and so the enforcement mechanism that’s provided is going and taking the case to court.”
While some lawsuits were brought by news outlets, others were from a variety of other records seekers. Coca-Cola sued the Internal Revenue Service to obtain information about an audit.
A few were filed to block records release. Princeton University filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education to keep records about a university investigation from becoming public.
Long said more data – from the number of FOIAs received and response times to denials – is required to explain what the increase in lawsuits ultimately means.
TRAC has collected FOIA lawsuits since 2001 for its initiative, The FOIA Project.
The database contains lawsuits such as those concerning the release of all records that mention President Donald Trump’s claims that the Obama administration wiretapped his offices, individuals connected to the protests of the Keystone Pipeline project, and documents about the FBI breaking into iPhones for its investigation into the 2015 San Bernardino shooting.