456 U.S. 615 (1982), 80-1735, Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson

Docket Nº:No. 80-1735
Citation:456 U.S. 615, 102 S.Ct. 2054, 72 L.Ed.2d 376
Party Name:Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Abramson
Case Date:May 24, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 615

456 U.S. 615 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 2054, 72 L.Ed.2d 376

Federal Bureau of Investigation

v.

Abramson

No. 80-1735

United States Supreme Court

May 24, 1982

Argued January 11, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent journalist filed a request with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for documents relating to the FBI's transmittal to the White House of information concerning individuals who had criticized the Presidential administration. The FBI denied the request under, inter alia, Exemption 7(C) of the FOIA, which exempts from disclosure "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes" when the release of such records would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." After unsuccessful administrative appeals, respondent filed suit in Federal District Court to enjoin the FBI from withholding the requested documents. While the suit was pending, the FBI provided respondent with certain documents, and respondent then modified his request to seek only a certain cover letter from the FBI to the White House, along with the accompanying "name check" summaries containing information culled from FBI files on the individuals in question, and certain attached documents. The District Court granted the FBI's motion for a summary judgment with respect to material withheld pursuant to Exemption 7(C). The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, except for those documents attached to the "name check" summaries that may have been duplicates of FBI files, the FBI had failed to show that the documents were compiled for law enforcement purposes, and that, accordingly, Exemption 7(C) was unavailable even though disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Held: Information contained in records originally compiled for law enforcement purposes does not lose its Exemption 7 exemption where such information is reproduced or summarized in a new document prepared for other than law enforcement purposes, but continues to meet Exemption 7's threshold requirement of being compiled for law enforcement purposes. Pp. 621-632.

(a) Although the Court of Appeals' construction of Exemption 7's threshold requirement as turning on the purpose for which the document sought to be withheld was prepared, not on the purpose for which the material included in the document was collected, is a plausible one on the face of the statute, it is not the only reasonable construction of the statutory language. The statutory language is reasonably construable to

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protect that part of an otherwise nonexempt compilation that essentially reproduces and is substantially the equivalent of all or part of an earlier record made for law enforcement uses. This construction more accurately reflects Congress' intention, is more consistent with the Act's structure, and more fully serves its purposes. Pp. 623-629.

(b) The legitimate interests in protecting information from disclosure under Exemption 7 are not satisfied by other exemptions, such as Exemption 6, which protects against unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and Exemption 5, which protects from disclosure predecisional communications within an agency and other internal documents. The reasons for an exemption under Exemption 7 remain intact even though information in a law enforcement record is recompiled in another document for other than law enforcement purposes. Pp. 629-630.

[102 S.Ct. 2057] (c) The result in this case is consistent with the principle that FOIA exemptions are to be narrowly construed, since there is no request that Exemption 7 be expanded to agencies or material not envisioned by Congress. Pp. 630-631.

(d) Congress' concern with possible misuse of governmental information for partisan political activity is not the equivalent of a mandate to release any information that might document such activity. Once it is established that information was compiled pursuant to a legitimate law enforcement investigation and that disclosure of such information would lead to one of the listed harms under Exemption 7, the information is exempt. Congress thus created a scheme of categorical exclusion and did not invite a judicial weighing of the benefits and evils of disclosure on a case-by-case basis. P. 631.

212 U.S.App.D.C. 58, 658 F.2d 806, [102 S.Ct. 2055] reversed and remanded.

WHITE J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 632. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 633.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1976 ed. and Supp. IV), does not require the disclosure of "investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes" when the release of such records would interfere with effective law enforcement, impede the administration of justice, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or produce certain other specified consequences. § 552(b)(7).1

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The sole question presented in this case is whether information contained in records compiled for law enforcement purposes loses that exempt status when it is incorporated into records compiled for purposes other than law enforcement.

I

Respondent Howard Abramson is a professional journalist interested in the extent to which the White House may have used [102 S.Ct. 2058] the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its files to obtain derogatory information about political opponents. On June 23, 1976, Abramson filed a request pursuant to FOIA for specific documents relating to the transmittal from the FBI to the White House in 1969 of information concerning particular individuals who had criticized the administration.2 The Bureau denied the request on grounds that the information was exempt from disclosure pursuant to § 552(b) (6) (Exemption 6) and § 552(b)(7)(C) (Exemption 7(C)), both

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of which protect against unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. Abramson, believing his first request was flawed by its specificity, filed a much broader request,3 which was denied for failure to "reasonably describe the records sought" as required by § 552(a)(3).

In December, 1977, after unsuccessfully appealing both denials within the agency, Abramson filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to enjoin the FBI from withholding the requested records. While the suit was pending, the FBI provided Abramson with 84 pages of documents, some intact and some with deletions. The District Court rejected the Bureau's assertions that all deleted material was exempt. Abramson v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civ. Action No. 77-2206 (Jan. 3, 1979). In response, the FBI submitted an affidavit to the District Court explaining the justification for each deletion. In light of the released material and the Bureau's affidavit, Abramson modified

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his request, seeking only the material withheld from a single document consisting of a one-page memorandum from J. Edgar Hoover to John D. Ehrlichman, together with approximately 63 pages of "name check" summaries and attached documents. The "name check" summaries contained information, culled from existing FBI files, on 11 public figures.

The District Court found that the FBI had failed to show that the information was compiled for law enforcement, rather than political, purposes, but went on to rule that Exemption 7(C) was validly invoked by the Government because disclosure of the withheld materials would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The District Court thus granted the Government's motion for summary judgment with respect to material withheld pursuant to Exemption 7(C). Abramson v. FBI, Civ. Action No. 77-2206 (Nov. 30, 1979).

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, with the exception of those documents attached to the summaries that may have been duplicates of original FBI files,4 the Government had failed to sustain its [102 S.Ct. 2059] burden of demonstrating that the documents were compiled for law enforcement purposes, and that Exemption 7(C) was therefore unavailable even though disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. 212 U.S.App.D.C. 58, 658 F.2d

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806 (1980). To reach this conclusion, the Court of Appeals rejected the Government's claim that Exemption 7(C) was applicable because the "name check" summaries contained information taken from documents in FBI files that had been created for law enforcement purposes. Thus, with the exception noted, the Government's invocation of Exemption 7(C) was rejected. Because this interpretation of the Exemption has important ramifications for law enforcement agencies, for persons about whom information has been compiled, and for the general public, we granted certiorari. 452 U.S. 937 (1981). We now reverse.

II

The Freedom of Information Act sets forth a policy of broad disclosure of Government documents in order "to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society." NLRB v. Robbins Tire Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978); EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 80 (1973). Yet Congress realized that legitimate governmental and private interests could be harmed by release of certain types of information, and provided nine specific exemptions under which disclosure could be refused. Here we are concerned with Exemption 7, which was intended to prevent premature disclosure of investigatory materials which might be used in a law enforcement action. This...

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