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Adjudicating Executive Privilege: Federal Administrative Agencies and Deliberative Process Privilege Claims in U.S. District Courts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024


Government transparency is a key component of democratic accountability. The U.S. Congress and the president have created multiple legislative avenues to facilitate executive branch transparency with the public. However, when the executive branch withholds requested information from the public, the federal judiciary has the power to determine whether agencies must release documents and information to requestors. When enforcing standards of executive branch transparency, judges must balance concerns of executive autonomy and judicial intrusion into administrative decisionmaking. While much judicial scholarship focuses on the decisionmaking on high courts, in the U.S. context, federal district courts play a key role in adjudicating transparency disputes. In this article, I examine case outcomes in disputes involving agency claims of deliberative process privilege over internal agency documents litigated between 1994 and 2004. I find that U.S. federal district courts largely defer to administrative agencies in transparency disputes. However, factors such as agency structure and the congruence between judicial and administrative agency policy preferences influence whether federal judges require executive branch officials to release requested information.

© 2019 Law and Society Association.

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