A solid ruling on White House visitor records, at last. A recent Obama appointee to the federal bench, at that…note that Judicial Watch was suing the Obama folks to make legally binding a policy the White House was claiming it was doing voluntarily. If only this had been handed down, say, any time in American history before Obama began divulging White House visitor records….
White House visitor records maintained by the Secret Service are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and must be disclosed if not covered by one of the law’s exemptions, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell issued the decision on a lawsuit brought by a conservative legal watchdog group, Judicial Watch. The group’s suit sought White House access records from January to September 2009, when President Barack Obama instituted a new and unprecedented policy of releasing the names of nearly all White House visitors.
In the case, Obama’s Justice Department took the position the government had under the Bush administration: that the White House visitor records were not subject to FOIA because they belonged to the president and not the Secret Service. However, Howell rejected that argument.
“The Secret Service argues that it is unable to dispose of the records freely because they are ultimately White House records and not agency records. This argument is circular,” Howell wrote in her 19-page ruling (posted here). “The claimed restrictions on disposal stem from the defendant’s assumption that the documents are under Presidential control — the exact point that the defendant seeks to prove to establish that the documents are not subject to FOIA.”
The Justice Department also argued that the records could implicate national security issues, but Howell said that was no reason to declare all the data requested by Judicial Watch to be beyond the reach of FOIA.
Given the Obama policy to release this information going forward, the implications of Howell’s ruling could be limited. However, if the decision is upheld, it means that what the White House has touted as a voluntary disclosure policy would not be voluntary any more.