Since President Donald Trump took office, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by individuals and organizations seeking federal government information have risen by 26 percent, an overall increase of 70 percent from just five years ago.
This is according to new data released Monday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse's (TRAC) FOIA Project. The Freedom of Information Act allows those seeking government information to file suit seeking to have their FOIA requests answered if an agency denies the request or fails to respond to it within 20 working days.
TRAC attributes the increase in large part to "the news media and nonprofit advocacy organizations," and notes that federal officials are concerned about coping with the tidal wave of lawsuits.
TRAC found some 651 FOIA lawsuits filed in fiscal year 2017, an increase from 515 in the same period in 2016. According to the FOIA Project's data, there were just 382 filed in 2012, the beginning of President Barack Obama's second term in office.
The Department of Justice led the pack in terms of receiving the most FOIA lawsuits in FY 2017, facing 197 lawsuits, a 20 percent bump from 2016. After DOJ was the Department of Homeland Security, with 98 lawsuits, a 46 percent increase.
Several departments have seen enormous percentage wise increases in lawsuits, which TRAC attributes to "heightened public concern." The Department of Education and Executive Office of the President both saw 333 percent increases, from three lawsuits to 13. The Environmental Protection Agency saw a 250 percent increase; the General Services Administration saw a 250 percent increase; and the Department of Commerce saw a 138 percent increase.
The court backlog of pending FOIA suits has grown at an even faster rate than the number of lawsuits, with almost 900 cases currently awaiting resolution. The report projects, barring any intervention, that this number to rise to over 1,000.
At an October symposium, executive branch officials emphasized that they saw the growing backlog as an issue the underlying causes of which need immediate addressing. At least some executive departments are working on reducing their backlogs: the EPA announced in November that it was working on clearing FOIA requests which dated to the Obama administration.
"We are committed to transparency," said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at the time. "EPA staff have quickly responded to the challenge to clear the backlog of FOIAs that built up from the previous administration, all while continuing to respond to the large volume of incoming requests."