Public Citizen Suit Results in Release of Justice Department Databases

Aug. 24, 1999

Public Citizen Suit Results in Release of Justice Department Databases

Valuable Electronic Data on Criminal, Civil Cases Released to Public

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Justice has released electronic copies of its case management databases in response to a lawsuit brought by the Public Citizen Litigation Group on behalf of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The government is releasing approximately 25 times more information than it previously released from its electronic databases on cases brought by federal prosecutors.

“The release of these databases marks a milestone in the fight for more public access to federal documents,” said Mike Tankersley, a Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney. “This lawsuit affirms the public?s right to access complex databases that show how public servants are performing their work.”

The Justice Department’s case management system databases contain detailed information on civil and criminal investigations and lawsuits conducted by the federal government. The records in these databases show what types of prosecutions federal prosecutors are bringing, how successful prosecutors have been, and what types of sentences or monetary recoveries result from their efforts. For years, the Justice Department has released only selected portions of these databases to the public and has asserted that many fields critical to analyzing the data are exempt from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Public Citizen filed suit in the Northern District of New York against the Justice Department in March 1998 on behalf of TRAC after the Justice Department refused to release case management data for the United States Attorneys? offices in the Western District of Kentucky and District of Minnesota. The Justice Department agreed to release the bulk of the information in these databases and committed itself to working with TRAC to promptly release the same enforcement data for each of the 94 United States Attorneys? offices.

TRAC received computer tapes containing the new data yesterday. TRAC is a data research center associated with Syracuse University. The clearinghouse gathers, distributes and analyzes data on the activities of federal enforcement and regulatory agencies. The data are used to provide the American people — news organizations, public interest groups, businesses and scholars — with comprehensive information on how federal enforcement resources are being used.

Susan Long, co-director of TRAC, hailed the Justice Department?s release of case management information. “Federal investigators and prosecutors have for many years exercised their vast powers with little outside oversight,” Long said. “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.”

Long is a FOIA pioneer. With her late husband Philip, she won 13 FOIA court decisions against the Internal Revenue Service, including a ground-breaking court of appeals decision relating to access to computerized data.

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Litigation Group’s Freedom of Information Clearinghouse

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