CALIFORNIA: The FBI should not have been sanctioned for withholding documents about its investigations and surveillance operations of Islamic groups, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
Courthouse News A coalition of Muslim-American community organizations and leaders, including the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California and the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-California), filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2006 to get a look at documents related to the FBI’s investigations of their members since 2001.
The FBI initially released just eight, heavily redacted pages, inspiring the groups to file suit in Los Angeles. Though the bureau later handed over another 100 pages or so, these too were heavily redacted.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney reviewed the full documents in camera, after which the FBI admitted that it had withheld some of the documents requested by groups. Judge Carney was not happy. He tried to unseal the withheld documents but was stopped by the 9th Circuit after an emergency appeal and two panel rulings.
When the Muslim groups sought sanctions against the agency for lying, Carney was inclined to agree. “The court must impose monetary sanctions to deter the government from deceiving the court again,” he wrote in a 2011 ruling.
But the federal appeals court again frustrated Judge Carney’s attempt to punish the FBI, reversing the award on procedural grounds Wednesday in a brief, unsigned ruling. The three-judge panel found that the sanctions motion ran counter to a “safe harbor” provision that allows the target of a motion to “correct or withdraw its problematic pleading” within a certain number of days. The FBI did so, the panel found.
“Shura Council moved for sanctions long after the District Court had ruled on the adequacy of the government’s eventual compliance with FOIA, and … after it had ruled the FBI’s original response had been inadequate and misleading,” the ruling states. “We recognize that because of the in camera nature of the proceedings, Shura Council could not have moved for sanctions before the inadequacy of the FBI’s original response was made known to the court.
Nevertheless, the motion for sanctions was made after ‘judicial rejection of the offending contention.’ The motion for sanctions should not have been granted.”