White House Fights to Keep Shirley Sherrod Emails Secret

Admin says public does not have 'any need for access to those documents'

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The Obama administration is trying to keep reams of White House emails regarding the 2010 firing of former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod secret.

Justice Department lawyers argued in U.S. District Court last week that documents filed recently in Sherrod’s libel lawsuit against the late Andrew Breitbart—who published video clips that led the White House to fire Sherrod over accusations of racism—should be sealed and not released to the public.

Josh Gerstein of Politico reports:

Court filings are normally public, but the Justice Department said the e-mails from the accounts of nine White House staffers and an additional number of Agriculture Department officials should be kept under wraps in part because the public already has enough information through official statements about Sherrod’s forced resignation and the ensuing events.

“The parties to this case have no need for ‘public access to the documents at issue’ because they can litigate under seal any issue to which those documents are relevant. Neither does the public at large have any need for access to those documents. As the United States has acknowledged in this case, plaintiff’s resignation from USDA ‘implicate[d] sensitive issues and significant public interest,” DOJ lawyers Charles Glass and Arthur Goldberg wrote. “Those matters have already been addressed, however, by the statements about plaintiff made by Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack and by then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at or about the time of plaintiff’s resignation. Those matters have also been addressed by the thousands of pages of documents dealing with plaintiff that USDA has produced to the public pursuant to [the Freedom of Information Act.]”

In the July 13 motion (posted here), the Justice Department lawyers also invoke a deference to “Presidential confidentiality” as a basis for keeping the contents of the e-mails secret.

“The Office of the President occupies a ‘unique position in the constitutional scheme’ and ‘the public interest requires that a coequal branch of Government afford Presidential confidentiality the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice,’” Glass and Goldberg wrote, quoting the 2004 Supreme Court case granting such deference to Vice President Dick Cheney in connection with records relating to the Energy Task Force he headed.