The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic is representing Prof. Ryan Scoville of Marquette University Law School in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that challenges the State Department’s chronically slow responses to FOIA requests.
In March 2020, Prof. Scoville requested public records from the State Department concerning sales of military equipment to foreign countries. A year later, the State Department announced that it would respond to his request — in 2023. The Clinic’s lawsuit seeks the documents that Prof. Scoville requested. But it also alleges that the State Department’s delay in his case is part of a broader policy or practice of delays that, as the department’s data show, force requestors to wait exceptionally long before receiving the public documents to which the law entitles them. The suit seeks a court order requiring the State Department to abide by the law going forward.
As anyone who has filed a request knows, FOIA can be a frustrating experience. Delays are typical, often stretching into months or years — far longer than the baseline 20-day deadline FOIA sets for agencies’ responses. Delays undercut FOIA’s purpose of ensuring the American people know what their government is up to and can effectively hold it accountable. By preventing prompt access to documents, agencies prevent democratic oversight.
Delays are common at the State Department. According to its own data, it had nearly 14,000 backlogged requests at the end of the 2020 fiscal year. That means nearly 14,000 requests that were pending for longer than FOIA allows. It’s nothing new: the department has tallied more than 10,000 backlogged requests every year for almost a decade. In 2020, the most recent year for which figures are available, it took the State Department an average of 86 days to respond to requests that it categorized as “simple.” The delays rose for “complex” requests, which took 350 days. “Expedited” requests, despite their apparent need for urgency, took the department an average of 399 days to respond. The Clinic’s lawsuit seeks to rectify these delays.
In January 2022, MFIA filed a complaint on behalf of Prof. Scoville in the District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin alleging that the State Department violated FOIA by failing to promptly respond to his FOIA request, and that the State Department has an impermissible policy or practice of repeated, prolonged, and unexcused delays. The complaint seeks an injunction ordering the State Department to cease that policy or practice. The State Department moved to dismiss the policy or practice claim, which the court denied, agreeing with MFIA that the case could go forward. The case is currently in discovery.