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FOIA’s Common Law

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) replaced the near-total control that agencies held over their records with a judicially enforceable “right” of public access to agency information. Underscoring the importance of this statutory right, FOIA rejected the judiciary’s traditional respect for agency expertise. It instead places the burden of proof on the government and mandates de novo review in litigation. And yet, agencies still effectively control the terms of information disclosure. The government wins nine out of every ten FOIA cases in court. This ratio is a startling departure from other areas of administrative law, where agencies generally enjoy much lower win rates.

This Article provides a framework for understanding this tension. Tracing FOIA’s doctrines to their roots, it finds that FOIA jurisprudence reflects the well-established “administrative common law” approach that courts apply elsewhere in administrative law. Specifically, courts have used functional or policy-based reasoning to transport preexisting evidentiary and administrative law doctrines to FOIA litigation, often in ways that challenge statutory text. Because these pre-FOIA doctrines overwhelmingly empowered the executive, the ensuing doctrines that courts grafted onto FOIA (“FOIA’s common law”) predictably and consistently favor agencies.

Recognizing FOIA doctrine as a subset of administrative common law holds broader implications. It provides a meaningful baseline for critique by situating FOIA within a larger debate over the judiciary’s proper role in the administrative state. It also offers new perspectives on how Congress can counteract the inertial forces driving FOIA’s common law. Finally, it informs the larger debate over administrative common law by showing the method’s resilience in an area where Congress has been uniquely active.