492 U.S. 136 (1989), 88-782, United States Department of Justice v. Tax Analysts

Docket Nº:No. 88-782
Citation:492 U.S. 136, 109 S.Ct. 2841, 106 L.Ed.2d 112, 57 U.S.L.W. 4925
Party Name:United States Department of Justice v. Tax Analysts
Case Date:June 23, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 136

492 U.S. 136 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 2841, 106 L.Ed.2d 112, 57 U.S.L.W. 4925

United States Department of Justice

v.

Tax Analysts

No. 88-782

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1989

Argued April 24, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Tax Division of the Department of Justice (Department) represents the Federal Government in nearly all civil tax cases in the district courts, the courts of appeals, and the Claims Court, and receives copies of all opinions and orders issued by those courts in such cases. Respondent publishes a weekly magazine containing summaries of recent federal court tax decisions, supplemented by full texts of those decisions in microfiche form. Respondent also publishes a daily electronic database that includes summaries and full texts of recent federal court tax decisions. After the Department denied its request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make available all district court tax opinions and final orders received by the Tax Division in a certain period, respondent appealed administratively. While the appeal was pending, respondent agreed to withdraw its request in return for access to the Tax Division's weekly log of federal court tax cases. Eventually, however, respondent became frustrated with the process of obtaining copies of decisions from district court clerks and initiated a series of new FOIA requests for copies of all district court opinions and final orders identified in the Tax Division's weekly logs. The Department denied these requests and, on administrative appeal, sustained the denial. Respondent then filed suit in District Court seeking to compel the Department to provide it with access to district court decisions received by the Tax Division. The District Court granted the Department's motion to dismiss the complaint, holding that 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), which confers jurisdiction in district courts when "agency records" have been "improperly withheld," had not been satisfied. The court reasoned that the decisions sought had not been "improperly withheld" because they were already available from their primary source, the district courts. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the decisions were "improperly withheld" and were "agency records" for purposes of the FOIA.

Held: The FOIA requires the Department to make available copies of district court decisions it receives in the course of litigating tax cases. Pp. 142-155.

(a) The requested district court decisions are "agency records." The Department obtained those documents from the district courts, and was in control of the documents when the requests were made. Pp. 143-148.

Page 137

(b) When the Department refused to comply with respondent's requests, it "withheld" the district court decisions for purposes of § 552(a)(4)(B), notwithstanding that the decisions were publicly available [109 S.Ct. 2844] from the original source as soon as they were issued. Pp. 148-150.

(c) The district court decisions were "improperly" withheld despite their public availability at the original source, since they did not fall within any of the enumerated exemptions to the FOIA's disclosure requirements. While under § 552(a)(3) an agency need not make available materials that have already been disclosed under §§ 552(a)(1) and (a)(2), these latter subsections are limited to situations in which the requested materials have been previously published or made available by the agency itself. That disclosure of district court decisions may be partially governed by other statutes, in particular 28 U.S.C. § 1914, and by rules of the Judicial Conference of the United States, does not entitle the Department to claim that the requested district court decisions were not "improperly" withheld, since Congress has enacted no provision authorizing an agency to refuse to disclose materials whose disclosure is mandated by another statute. Moreover, the decision in GTE Sylvania, Inc. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 445 U.S. 375, that agency records enjoined from disclosure by a district court were not "improperly" withheld even though they did not fall within any of the enumerated exemptions, was not meant to be an invitation to courts in every case to engage in balancing, based on public availability and other factors, to determine whether there has been an unjustified denial of information. The FOIA invests courts with neither the authority nor the tools to make such determinations. Pp. 150-155.

269 U.S.App.D.C. 315, 845 F.2d 1060, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., concurred in the judgment. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post p. 156.

Page 138

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA or Act), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (1982 ed. and Supp. V), requires the United States Department of Justice (Department) to make available copies of district court decisions that it receives in the course of litigating tax cases on behalf of the Federal Government. We hold that it does.

I

The Department's Tax Division represents the Federal Government in nearly all civil tax cases in the district courts, the courts of appeals, and the Claims Court. Because it represents a party in litigation, the Tax Division receives copies of all opinions and orders issued by these courts in such cases. Copies of these decisions are made for the Tax Division's staff attorneys. The original documents are sent to the official files kept by the Department.

If the Government has won a district court case, the Tax Division must prepare a bill of costs and collect any money judgment indicated in the decision. If the Government has lost, the Tax Division must decide whether to file a motion to alter or amend the judgment or whether to recommend filing an appeal. The decision whether to appeal involves not only the Tax Division but also the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Solicitor General. A division of the IRS reviews the district court's decision and prepares a recommendation on whether an appeal should be taken. The court decision and the accompanying recommendation are circulated to the Tax Division, which formulates its own recommendation, and then to the Solicitor General, who reviews the district court decision [109 S.Ct. 2845] in light of the IRS and Tax Division's recommendations. If the Solicitor General ultimately approves an appeal, the Tax Division prepares a record and joint appendix, both of which must contain a copy of the district court decision, for transmittal to the court of appeals. If no appeal is

Page 139

taken, the Tax Division is responsible for ensuring the payment of any court-ordered refund and for defending against any claim for attorney's fees.

Respondent Tax Analysts publishes a weekly magazine, Tax Notes, which reports on legislative, judicial, and regulatory developments in the field of federal taxation to a readership largely composed of tax attorneys, accountants, and economists. As one of its regular features, Tax Notes provides summaries of recent federal court decisions on tax issues. To supplement the magazine, Tax Analysts provides full texts of these decisions in microfiche form. Tax Analysts also publishes Tax Notes Today, a daily electronic database that includes summaries and full texts of recent federal court tax decisions.

In late July, 1979, Tax Analysts filed a FOIA request in which it asked the Department to make available all district court tax opinions and final orders received by the Tax Division earlier that month.1 The Department denied the request on the ground that these decisions were not Tax Division records. Tax Analysts then appealed this denial administratively. While the appeal was pending, Tax Analysts agreed to withdraw its request in return for access to the Tax Division's weekly log of tax cases decided by the federal courts. These logs list the name and date of a case, the docket number, the names of counsel, the nature of the case, and its disposition.

Since gaining access to the weekly logs, Tax Analysts' practice has been to examine the logs and to request copies of the decisions noted therein from the clerks of the 90 or so district courts around the country, and from participating attorneys. In most instances, Tax Analysts procures copies reasonably promptly, but this method of acquisition has proven

Page 140

unsatisfactory approximately 25% of the time. Some court clerks ignore Tax Analysts' requests for copies of decisions, and others respond slowly, sometimes only after Tax Analysts has forwarded postage and copying fees. Because the Federal Government is required to appeal tax cases within 60 days, Tax Analysts frequently fails to obtain copies of district court decisions before appeals are taken.

Frustrated with this process, Tax Analysts initiated a series of new FOIA requests in 1984. Beginning in November, 1984, and continuing approximately once a week until May, 1985, Tax Analysts asked the Department to make available copies of all district court tax opinions and final orders identified in the Tax Division's weekly logs. The Department denied these requests, and Tax Analysts appealed administratively. When the Department sustained the denial, Tax Analysts filed the instant suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to compel the Department to provide it with access to district court decisions received by the Tax Division.

The District Court granted the Department's motion to dismiss the complaint, holding that 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B), which confers jurisdiction in the district courts when "agency records" have been "improperly withheld,"2 had not been satisfied. 643...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP