This week, the Knight Institute released a tool to improve access to opinions authored by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. It’s a Twitter account, @OLCforthepeople, that lets you know every time the OLC publishes an opinion in its reading room.
Why is this tool necessary? The OLC is the agency responsible for interpreting the law for the executive branch. Its opinions bind federal officials, effectively deciding what the law is (unless overruled by the president, the attorney general, or a court). Despite the importance of its opinions, the OLC does not publish all of them. Instead, it publishes only a subset in an online reading room, based on discretionary criteria it applies behind closed doors. When the OLC does publish opinions in its reading room, it tends to do so without any kind of public notice. It just adds them to its online database, which currently has about 1,400 opinions.
The tool we released this week will make sure that, when the OLC does publish its opinions, we’ll know about it. Just follow @OLCforthepeople, and you’ll see a tweet within about an hour of the OLC’s publication of an opinion.
Of course, the broader problem here is that the OLC does not presumptively publish its opinions. The Knight Institute has challenged that practice in federal court on behalf of the Campaign for Accountability. You can read about that litigation here. In separate litigation, we’ve fought for the disclosure of the OLC’s opinions written before 1994—and we’ve gotten hundreds of them released and expect several hundred more over the coming months. You can read about that effort here.
We’ve also gotten the OLC to disclose indices of all of its unclassified opinions written between 1945 and 1994. And it has committed to re-releasing, hopefully in much less redacted form, its list of classified opinions written between 1974 and 1994. We’ve published all of the opinions and indices we’ve gotten so far in our own online reading room, and we’ll be adding the new ones as we get them. They’re all tagged and searchable here.
In the meantime, follow @OLCforthepeople to stay on top of the OLC’s latest publications.
(Special thanks to Parker Higgins for advising us as we built this tool. And also an obligatory disclaimer: It was built by a lawyer who only dabbles in coding, so YMMV, as they say.)
Alex Abdo is the litigation director of the Knight Institute.