Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President

Government Transparency — non–FOIA
Government Transparency - FOIA
Case Description: 

This case sought to prohibit the erasing of electronic records in the last few days of the Reagan Administration. In its first time up to the D.C. Circuit, see Armstrong v. Bush, 924 F.2d 282 (D.C. Cir. 1991), the court held that the plaintiff researchers and historians had standing to bring Federal Records Act (FRA) and Presidential Records Act (PRA) claims. It furthermore held that although the APA does not authorize judicial review of the President’s compliance with the PRA and the FRA precludes direct private actions to require agency staff members to comply with the agency’s record-keeping guidelines, the APA authorizes judicial review of claims that agency recordkeeping guidelines are arbitrary and capricious and of claims that the Archivist or an agency head has breached the statutory duty to take action to prevent agency officials from destroying records in contravention of the agency's recordkeeping guidelines or to recover records unlawfully removed from an agency.

On remand, the district court concluded that the electronic records were federal records that had to be preserved and that the defendants’ practices for electronic recordkeeping were deficient, and it enjoined the defendants from deleting information from their electronic records systems until the Archivist took action to prevent the destruction of federal records unless the information was preserved elsewhere in identical form. In an August 1993 decision, Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 1 F.3d 1274, the D.C. Circuit ruled that electronic mail and word processing files must be managed as government records, and it sent the case back to the district court to determine whether the government's removal of the records at the end of the Bush Administration warranted sanctions for contempt of court. Shortly after the Court's decision, the National Archives adopted new regulations on the preservation of electronic records.

On remand again, the National Security Council, argued that it was not an agency subject to FOIA and the FRA, and the Court of Appeals agreed, 90 F.3d 552 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

Finally, the plaintiffs challenged the withholding of electronic mail records and calendars of the National Security Council under Exemptions 1, 3 and 6 of the Freedom of Information Act. Plaintiffs argued that the government could not withhold the names of law enforcement officials who attended White House meetings on the grounds that disclosure "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," and that an expired statute cannot provide a basis for withholding records under exemption 3. During briefing before the court of appeals, the government released the document it had claimed was exempt from disclosure under exemption 3, thereby mooting the exemption 3 issue. With regard to the exemption 6 issue, the court of appeals held that the government had not provided a convincing reason why there should be a categorical rule that release of FBI agents' names would always constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, no matter what the context. See Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President, 97 F.3d 575 (D.C. Cir. 1996).