On April 12, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the Commission’s policy of disclosing certain documents from its investigations in closed enforcement matters. The policy had been challenged by John Does 1 and 2 (plaintiffs), whose names appear in documents from the Commission’s investigation of allegations made in the administrative complaint in Matter Under Review 6920. In 2018, the district court upheld the Commission’s disclosure policy and rejected plaintiffs' claim that the release of documents identifying them would violate the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the First Amendment, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The appeals court dismissed plaintiffs’ argument that the Commission is prohibited from disclosing any information from a closed investigation that FECA does not specifically authorize the agency to disclose. The plaintiffs also claimed that the First Amendment to the Constitution is a bar to the Commission’s release of documents that publicly identify them; however, the appeals court agreed with the district court that Citizens United rejected the argument that FECA’s disclosure provisions violate the First Amendment. Plaintiffs further claimed that an exception provided in FOIA entitled them to an injunction preventing the disclosure of their identities. However, the appeals court noted, the typical "reverse-FOIA" case involved an entity submitting information to an agency and then preventing the agency from revealing it to a third party. In this case, neither plaintiff provided any of the information the Commission would release; indeed, both plaintiffs refused to comply with a subpoena seeking that information.
Finally, the appeals court noted that "FOIA is a disclosure statute." An agency disclosing information pursuant to statutory or regulatory provisions does not violate FOIA. The FOIA exemption relied upon by plaintiffs is meant to prevent disclosure of personal matters, such as marital status, legitimacy of children, medical conditions, and family matters. Information relating to business judgments and relationships, such as the decision by the trust and trustee to contribute to a political committee, does not qualify. Thus, the appeals court affirmed the judgment of the district court.
Editor's note: On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs' petition for a writ of certiorari. Therefore, the appeals court decision stands as the final decision in this case. On April 7, 2020, the district court lifted its stay of April 10, 2018 and ordered that the Commission may publish the closed enforcement file for Matter Under Review (MUR) 6920 in accordance with its disclosure policy without redacting plaintiffs’ identities.