Western Values Project Wins Freedom of Information Act Suit for National Monuments Documents

After Western Values Project filed suit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) for failing to respond to two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking information on efforts to change DOJ legal opinions on the President’s authority to undermine the Antiquities Act, the D.C. District Court ordered the department to respond to the watchdog group within 14 days with an index of any responsive records.

“This is another affirmation that this administration’s failure to respond to public information requests is not in line with the law and, ultimately, appears to be a concerted effort to keep the public in the dark on critical decisions,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “We look forward to reviewing the index and believe the department should make any responsive documents public. It is clear that the President illegally revoked two national monuments, authority that the Antiquities Act expressly grants to only Congress.”

The suit stemmed from two FOIA requests filed by Western Values Project (WVP) for prior legal opinions regarding the President’s ability to shrink and abolish national monuments, specifically whether there had been any efforts to revisit, revoke, or amend those opinions in the first five months of the administration. The department issued a “Glomar response” in refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any records.

The Court rejected the department’s claim, concluding that it was not permitted to issue a Glomar response. The Court ordered the department to provide an index of any responsive records within fourteen days.

On December 4, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order based on the recommendation of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that eliminated the largest area of public land protections in U.S. history with the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments in Utah. The Antiquities Act only authorizes the reduction of designated national monuments through an act of Congress.

Previous analysis of public documents obtained through a FOIA by the New York Times found that oil was central in the decision to shrink Bears Ears despite Secretary Zinke’s repeated claims that it was not. 

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