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Elec. Priv. Info. Ctr. v. DOJ, No. 20-5364, 2021 WL 5571135 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 30, 2021) (Henderson, J.)

Date

Elec. Priv. Info. Ctr. v. DOJ, No. 20-5364, 2021 WL 5571135 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 30, 2021) (Henderson, J.)

Re:  Request for report prepared by Special Counsel regarding investigation into Russian interference in United States presidential election

Disposition:  Affirming in part and reversing in part district court's grant in part and denial in part of parties' cross-motions for summary judgment

  • Exemption 7(C):  The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit "reverse[s] the district court's grant of summary judgment to DOJ on its Exemption 7(C) withholding claims for the information regarding the Special Counsel's declination decisions on the purported campaign violations."  "In all other respects, [the court] affirm[s] the district court's grant of summary judgment to DOJ on its Exemption 7(C) withholding decisions."  The court relates that "[the requester] does not contest the significant privacy interests at stake here."  "Instead, it posits that the privacy interests are diminished because 'the people in these records were high-ranking members of the Trump presidential campaign' and 'it is already publicly known that specific members of the Trump campaign were included in the Special Counsel's investigation.'"  "[The court has] indeed stated that public officials 'may have a somewhat diminished privacy interest' in the Exemption 7(C) balancing analysis."  "Of the individuals whose privacy interests may be jeopardized by disclosure of the requested information, only one is a public official."  "The remaining individuals are private citizens who served on a presidential campaign."  First, the court "hesitate[s] to extend [the idea that "a citizen's status as a public figure 'might' ultimately weigh in favor of disclosure"] to undermine the significant privacy interests of private citizens serving on a presidential campaign."  The court "leav[es] open for future panels the question whether presidential campaign officials have diminished privacy interests."  However, regarding the material concerning "the declination decisions relating to purported campaign violations," "[a]fter conducting [its] own in camera review of the unredacted Mueller Report, [the court] determine[s] that the factual and personally identifying information alleged to be contained in the redacted passages . . . of the Joint Appendix is available elsewhere in the Report."  "The privacy interests, then, are not robust, as no additional reputational or stigmatizing harm can result from the disclosure of the information contained therein."  Additionally, the court finds that "the privacy interests of the individuals investigated for campaign violations are diminished, but not eliminated, by disclosure of the relevant facts elsewhere in the Report."  "The individuals purportedly investigated for false statements – the fourth category alluded to above – retain a significant privacy interest in the contents of the Report because the redacted sections include new facts that would be stigmatizing." 

    "Turning to the public interest side of the equation, [the court] agree[s] with the district court that 'the public interest in the Special Counsel's investigation is substantial.'"  "It is here that [the court] part[s] ways with the district court and conclude that [the requester] has identified a significant public interest previously recognized by this court and has made the required showing linking the disclosure with the advancement of the public interest:  '[W]hether the Special Counsel adequately investigated and reached proper declination decisions as to potential crimes by members of the Trump campaign.'"  "[I]n other words, the redacted material covers how the Special Counsel carried out his duties to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct."  "This public interest suffices to tip the balance in favor of disclosure, at least with respect to the information relating to individuals investigated for campaign violations, as the factual circumstances surrounding this portion of the investigation are already publicly available in the unredacted portions of the Report."  The court relates that "[the requester] seeks disclosure of 'passages contain[ing] detailed legal analysis that shows how the Special Counsel interpreted the relevant law and applied it to the facts in reaching the declination decisions.'"  "This, [the requester] argues, 'is precisely the kind of information that would allow the public to understand substantive matters of important law enforcement policy.'"  "[The court] agree[s]."  "'Disclosure of the [information] would likely reveal much about the diligence of the [Special Counsel's] investigation and the [ ] exercise of [his] prosecutorial discretion: whether the government had the evidence but nevertheless pulled its punches.'"  "Disclosure would also show how the Special Counsel interpreted the relevant law and applied it to already public facts in reaching his declination decisions." 

    Regarding the balancing, the court holds that "[t]he public interest in matters of substantive law enforcement policy is strong with respect to each category of redacted information sought by [the requester]."  "The privacy interests, undoubtedly significant, are slightly less (although not eliminated) with respect to the individuals whose personally identifiable information is already available in public portions of the Report in the context of potential criminal charges."  "[The court] refer[s] to these broadly as the three categories of information that detail the declination analysis for purported campaign violations."  "For this material, the strong public interest tips the scale in favor of disclosure, as releasing this information would show only government decisionmaking, not new private information."  "The privacy interests relating to individuals investigated for but not charged with making false statements, however, remain significant."  "On [the court's] read, this material contains additional facts about individuals that are not disclosed elsewhere and that would be highly stigmatizing."  "[The court] therefore conclude[s] that their substantial privacy interests tip the scale in favor of non-disclosure for this category of material."
Court Decision Topic(s)
Court of Appeals opinions
Exemption 7(C)
Updated January 10, 2022