FOIA Requesters Wait Months, Years for Answers: Report

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been undermined by endless delays as federal officials seemingly ignore enforced deadlines to respond to requests, forcing those seeking information to take agencies to court, according to a report released Wednesday.

The FOIA, passed in 1966, entitles the public to access to government records in a timely fashion.  However, according to the FOIA Project, federal judges have been increasingly “failing to rule in a timely manner,” leaving requestors in limbo.

The report was sponsored by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University.

“All these delays have practical consequences,” said the authors of the report, entitled “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” noting that many people need information and records to handle pressing personal matters, while others seek information to aid in immediate public policy issues.

Without the information, and because of these delays, the FOIA Project says requesters are left in the dark for far too long.

For example, advocates who have been seeking records about the policies pursued under the administration of former President Donald Trump are not likely to receiver the information until long after he departed office.

“And unless matters change, the same will be true for FOIA requesters seeking records about the new Biden administration’s policies,” the report warned.

While the FOIA Project says that some skeptics believe the backlog is due to an increase of citizens exercising their right to access publicly available content, experts say that’s simply not the case.

The backlog and lengthy delay from judges don’t seem to be correlated by an increase in case filings, the FOIA report outlines. Specifically, during the last two years, FOIA filings by citizens have not increased, yet, the FOIA lawsuit backlog “continued to balloon.”

Looking at the Numbers

The latest case-by-case court records analyzed by the FOIA Project show that even after filing suits, requesters are facing longer and longer delays before their cases are decided simply because “judges are failing to rule in a timely manner and allowing cases to drag on for years.”

To put this into perspective, at the end of FY 2020, the number of FOIA cases pending in the federal courts climbed to a peak of 1,683. This is more than three and a half times the number of pending cases ten years ago, when in FY 2010, the pending court caseload was just 467.

This “ballooning” is not better explained by an increase in caseload, considering in FY 2019, there were 854 new filings compared to the 808 FOIA requests made in FY 2020.

Moreover, the amount of time the backlog will take to finish is still unclear.

The statistics don’t look promising, considering there has been a 46 percent increase in cases that have been pending for 48 months or more since FY 2019, according to the FOIA Project.

For nearly 50 percent of the requesters have been waiting 51 months and counting.

Looking at the worst-of-the worst cases, “A dozen FOIA cases had been pending for ten years or more and were still awaiting resolution at the district court level.”

The full report can be accessed here. 

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano

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