Lawsuit forces Justice Department to release database records

Wednesday, August 25, 1999

Sparked by a federal lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice has begun to release electronic copies of its case-management databases, a move that open-government advocates say will make about 25 times more information about federal prosecution cases available to the public.

“The release of these databases marks a milestone in the fight for more public access to federal documents,” said Mike Tankersley, an attorney with the consumer-lobbying group Public Citizen, in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “This lawsuit affirms the public's right to access complex databases that show how public servants are performing their work.”

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research center based at Syracuse University, and Public Citizen filed suit in the Northern District of New York against the Justice Department in March 1998. The suit came after federal officials refused to release data from the U.S. Attorneys' offices in Minnesota and western Kentucky.

According to the lawsuit, the Justice Department's databases contain detailed information on civil and criminal investigations and lawsuits conducted by the federal government. The records show the types of federal prosecution cases, federal attorneys' success rate and final damages and sentences in those cases.

Public Citizen contended that the department for years had released only selected portions of these databases to the public, claiming that unreleased records were exempt from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Justice Department agreed to release the bulk of the records as part of a promise to open more records in each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices. That agreement is part of the lawsuit settlement.

Susan Long, co-director of TRAC, said the center received the first of the data on Aug. 23.

“Federal investigators and prosecutors have for many years exercised their vast powers with little outside oversight,” Long said in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “The promise of this data is that it will vastly improve the ability of the public to examine the fairness and effectiveness of a steadily growing part of government.”