Nudging Justice Forward — A little appropriation goes a long way

The Department of Justice is one of the most enigmatic federal agencies. Entrusted with enormous power, it can be a tremendous champion for the public good. But with great power — as the axiom says — comes great responsibility, and the Justice Department twists and turns away from public scrutiny that assesses its behavior.

Congress ultimately bears the responsibility to hold the Executive Branch to account, which is why we submitted testimony last Friday encouraging the legislature to do just that. While the Justice Department is virtually untouchable, its Achilles’ heel is its funding, which is where we put in our request: to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that is considering funding for Commerce, Science, Justice, and related agencies.

We requested three things:

  1. OLC Opinions. The Justice Department should account for and release information about legal opinions rendered by its Office of Legal Counsel. OLC opinions often act as a final interpretation of the law for the executive branch, but many are kept secret and we have no way of knowing how many there are. These opinions can act as a “get out of jail free” card, and we know they have been misused, such as in the notorious opinion permitting torture. We need a full accounting.
  2. Foreign Lobbying Data. The Justice Department is charged with tracking agents of foreign government who lobby our federal government. Unlike domestic lobbyists, whose information is collected as data, the Justice Department gathers reams of paper and its digital equivalent. This makes it difficult to figure out who is lobbying on what — and just about impossible for DOJ to enforce compliance with the law. The Justice Department made a commitment to explore modernization of the system two years ago. We want them to act.
  3. Freedom of Information Act. A tiny unit in a small office inside DOJ has responsibility for government-wide policy on the Freedom of Information Act. How much funding do they have? What exactly are they doing? It is hard to know — so we asked for more information about what they do and an assessment of whether they are doing the public’s business or have been captured by the agency’s parochial priorities.

Our testimony is online here. Let me know what you think.

— Written by Daniel Schuman