Student-Attorneys Use Freedom of Information Acts to Advocate for Transparency and Accountability in Government and Education

June 2, 2023

Students working in the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic

This Spring, student-attorneys in the Public Justice Advocacy Clinic (PJAC), directed by Professor Jeffrey Gutman and co-taught with Professor Holly Eaton litigated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) cases to meet their client's goals. 

PJAC student-attorneys, Elizabeth Gibbons (Class of ’23) and David Markallo (Class of ’23), represented local education nonprofit Advocates for Justice and Education (AJE). AJE filed a DC FOIA request to compel DC Public Schools (DCPS) to release two types of records to the public. The first was a request for anonymized adjudications (termed Letters of Resolution) authored by DCPS’s Comprehensive Alternative Resolution & Equity (CARE) Team, which resolves grievances within the school community. The second request was for policy documents and training materials that guide the CARE Team in resolving those grievances. The District denied the  FOIA requests, claiming that privacy interests shielded even anonymized Letters of Resolution, and claimed to have disclosed all CARE Team policy documents. PJAC sued for disclosure of the letters and policies, and in January, the student-attorneys delivered oral argument in opposition to the District’s  Motion for Summary Judgment in DC Superior Court on both claims. In May, the Court denied the District’s motion, ordering at least a partial release of the Letters and a new search for responsive policy documents. 

Three  teams of student-attorneys also represented Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an ethics and accountability watchdog organization, in three separate matters.

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has placed federal officials at various state election sites to evaluate compliance with federal election law. On November 7, 2022, DOJ announced that they would be sending personnel to 24 states with the purpose of monitoring the November 8th general election. Florida and Missouri refused to permit these officials to physically enter polling locations. To better understand DOJ's response to these recalcitrant states, CREW filed a FOIA request seeking records.   After DOJ failed to timely respond to CREW's request, a team of student attorneys, Michael Hill (Class of ’23) and Kevin Kane (Class of ’23), filed a federal complaint on CREW’s behalf on January 30, 2023. The suit prompted initial disclosures, which began in May. 

The second matter involves former President Donald Trump’s November 10, 2022 post on Truth Social that, during the 2018 election, he “sent in the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys” to Broward County, Florida, to stop votes from “being stolen” from now-Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and now-Senator Rick Scott (R-FL). According to a Newsweek article, former President Trump alleged that, after he sent in federal law enforcement, “the ballot theft immediately ended, just prior to them running out of the votes necessary to win.” To educate the public on whether and to what extent former President Trump’s claims about sending federal law enforcement to Broward County during the 2018 election were true, CREW filed a FOIA request with  three  components of DOJ. The DOJ failed to respond to CREW's request, so PJAC student-attorneys, Estefania Palacios (Class of ’23) and Katherine Cusick (Class of ’23), filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief on behalf of CREW in mid-February. The suit prompted the government to begin searching for any responsive records.  That process is ongoing. 

In a third matter, student-attorneys Lisa MacBeth (Class of ’23) and Gabriel Scavone (Class of ’23) filed a complaint on behalf of CREW to obtain communications between FOX News representatives and the president of the National Border Patrol Council. This agent has appeared on FOX News endorsing the “Great Replacement Theory”, which is a far-right conspiracy theory that claims Democrats are attempting to weaken the southern border to allow in more Latin American immigrants, and therefore, changing the demographics in the United States. CREW believes the public has a significant interest in learning whether the FOX News agent promoted this racist conspiracy theory while communicating in his official capacity as a government agent, and how prevalent this theory is within U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  As a result of the lawsuit, the government is now searching and will disclose responsive records.