WASHINGTON—A federal district court ruled late Friday that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) must disclose all of its formal legal opinions that resolve disputes between executive agencies. The case, litigated by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of the Campaign for Accountability, involves the “reading-room” provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires agencies to proactively disclose certain records to the public.

“This is a landmark decision in the long fight for public access to legal opinions issued by the Office of Legal Counsel,” said Alex Abdo, litigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The OLC’s opinions are the law of the executive branch, and the public has a presumptive right to see them. We’re hopeful that the government will begin to comply with this ruling right away.”

Sometimes called the “Supreme Court of the executive branch,” the OLC issues legal opinions governing the full range of executive powers, policies, and responsibilities. The OLC is a component of the Department of Justice that issues legal opinions that bind federal agencies on matters of significant public concern. These opinions are the authoritative law of the government on subjects ranging from warrantless surveillance to the torture of detainees to retirement benefits for federal employees. Although these opinions often implicate questions of overwhelming public concern, the OLC has published only a fraction of them.

In Friday’s ruling, the court held that OLC opinions resolving interagency disputes are “final opinions” that fall within FOIA’s proactive disclosure provision. The OLC issues these opinions when a dispute between two or more federal agencies turns on a disagreement over how to interpret the law. 

“As the court recognized, there is no place for secret law in a democracy. Requiring OLC to release its opinions will provide Americans greater insight into the decisions of our government,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, Executive Director of the Campaign for Accountability. “After nearly eight years of litigation, we hope OLC, finally, will expose its authoritative legal opinions to the light of day.”

The Knight Institute and Campaign for Accountability also secured the release of hundreds of historical OLC opinions through a separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Francis v. DOJ. On February 15, 2019, the Knight Institute submitted a request to the OLC for all of its formal written opinions issued prior to February 15, 1994, taking advantage of new legislation that limits the authority of federal agencies, including the OLC, to withhold memos that are more than 25 years old. When the OLC failed to release any opinions in response to this request, the Institute filed suit on behalf of five scholars, Campaign for Accountability, and the Institute itself. The Institute reached a settlement with the OLC in August 2021. Under that settlement, the OLC has provided the Institute with indices of OLC opinions written between 1945 and February 15, 1994, and released 230 of the opinions listed on those indices. It also disclosed a list of classified OLC opinion titles written between 1974 and February 15, 1994. These opinions and indices are available on the Knight Institute’s website in an OLC Reading Room.

The Institute also launched @OLCforthepeople, a Twitter (now X) account that alerts the public each time the OLC adds an opinion to its own online database—a process that generally happens without public notice. 

Read more about Campaign for Accountability v. DOJ here.

Access the Knight Institute’s OLC Reading Room here.

For more information, contact: Adriana Lamirande, [email protected].