One misstep, one decision, one instant can unleash consequences that last a lifetime. Consider April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion created an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the fallout from which is still making news. While the first reports were made from the coast, the story has now moved into the courtroom.
Headlines scream breaking environmental news when an oil tanker or truck has a major spill, when a factory is found to be releasing toxic chemicals, or when a wildlife trafficker is caught and arrested (remember the man who tried to smuggle parrots in water bottles?) But what happens after the fact is sometimes overlooked. The court cases, the cash settlements, and the criminal punishments are as interesting as the original stories, and the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the Department of Justice makes reporting on them possible.
ENRD handles cases dealing with civil and criminal statutes related to the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, and other lesser known environmental laws. It also handles conflicts over Native American rights and eminent domain actions to obtain private land for federal ownership. The Division is split into several categories, including Prevention and Cleanup of Pollution, Environmental Challenges to Federal Programs and Activities, Stewardship of Public Lands and Natural Resources, Property Acquisition for Federal Needs, Wildlife Protection, Indian Rights and Claims, and Appellate and Policy Work. The department is split into ten geographic sections nationwide, and is currently managing 7,000 active cases in state and territorial courts.
I personally love looking into court proceedings and digging into legal issues. But there are a few reasons why it’s not attractive to everyone. For one, it takes an incredible amount of patience. The processing time between an original formal complaint and the final decision (then appeals, sentencing or settlement, etc) is months at best, never-ending at worst. During an ongoing case, lawyers, judges, and witnesses fall silent. And the best cases involving big-name companies will likely be settled in private behind closed doors, where confidentiality agreements and sealed documents are no match for FOIA. Of the nine FOIA exemptions, at least five can be used to block a request for information that might come out during a court proceeding: including company trade secrets, witness medical records, law enforcement information, and internal agency personnel rules and practices. Finally, few people enjoy reading through the hundreds of pages of legal jargon that may accompany a case file.
One way to skirt this is to visit ENRD’s online press room, where releases include name of offender, prosecuting agency, details of the crime, and final decision and sentencing. In the last month, ENRD has published the outcomes of BP civil claim settlements, as well as environmental crimes committed by a Norwegian shipping company and an order to reduce emissions at a New Mexico power plant.
However, the press releases alone don’t give journalists a chance to dig deeper. It’s better to get your hands on court documents and sometimes, this can even be done without using FOIA. The Department of Justice puts out documents called “proactive disclosures” under subsection (a) 2 of FOIA, which are posted online automatically without any request from the public, and listed in the FOIA library. This includes final opinions, agency policy statements, FOIA request records, and certain administration staff manuals. Proposed consent decrees awaiting public comment are also available through the site and notices published in the Federal Register. Eleven cases are currently open for public comment, including U.S. v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and U.S. v. Alabama Power Co. Frequently requested records, final opinions and orders, and yearly summaries of litigation accomplishments dating back from 2004, can be found on the Selected Publications site (although no opinions are currently listed). However, that’s not to say all information is readily available.
FOIA @ ENRD
If you do need to file a FOIA request with ENRD, what can you expect? The Justice department handles upward of 60,000 requests per year, but only 70 to 80 of those fall under the Environmental and Natural Resources category. The small number of requests means processing time is slightly quicker than the average for DOJ requests; about 30 days for simple requests, a year for complex, and 10 days for expedited requests. Only 6 ENRD requests were pending at the end of 2014, despite the division having only two full-time FOIA employees.
ENRD has traditionally granted 30% of FOIA requests in full, and given partial grants in another 30%; consistent with the DOJ response overall. Only a small portion (generally less than 5 cases) are denied based on exemptions, while most are denied listing the reason as “no records.” Denials made last year were based on exemption 3, citing 5 U.S.C. § 574 and 28 U.S.C. § 651, and withholding information about dispute resolution communications and confidential mediation documents.
Decreasing Wildlife Trafficking, Increasing Web Traffic
In the past few years, a joint DOJ task force has been focusing on wildlife trafficking cases, and publishing summaries of the cases in a new online database. I find this particularly interesting, not only because some of these stories can involve off-beat characters (i.e. water-bottle bird man), but because illegal ivory/rhino horn/shark fin trading are big problems in developing countries. And it’s not easy to get a look into the black market. More info about each case can be found in the FOIA library or by a records request, including a case caption or name, civil action number, judicial district, and date or year of filing.
Final note: In addition to the DOJ, there are several other sites that keep searchable court records, although access might require a paid subscription. A few of the most frequently used sites are:.
- Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER)
- PACER is a national database for federal cases from U.S. district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts. You can search by party involved, by court locale, or with the case locator tool. Documents are available immediately after being electronically filed. PACER requires its members to register for an account, and may charge up to $3.00 for a document. The downsides are that some personal identification information, like name and address, are removed before the record becomes public, and that there are no pre-2004 criminal case documents.
- Lexis Nexis
- Lexis Nexis is another pay-to-use service, but searches also include documents such as newspaper articles and company information related to a specific query. There is a professionals option, which contains documents, dockets, and litigation histories, but users must have a subscription to access. On the other hand, there is Lexis Nexis Academic, which is free, and can search cases by specific citation or parties involved. I’ve usually found this strategy to be hit-or-miss when it comes to how much information is provided, but on the plus side, it’s free.
- Free Law Online
- This is an incredibly comprehensive and helpful site put out by the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington. It contains a list of databases including laws, bills, court opinions on the federal and state levels (not just Washington state); there are links for each provided by the National Center for State Courts and American Libraries Association. The site also gives suggestions for online law reporters and digests, and publishes a legal research guide for non-lawyers.
How would you judge your Department of Justice or court stories experience? Share your thoughts by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @amayrianne.