The D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on Monday that the CIA does not have to pay my court costs incurred in the long-running FOIA lawsuit Morley v. CIA. The split decision was joined by Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by President Trump later that day to serve on the the Supreme Court.
About the information I obtained via litigation, the unsigned opinion said, “the public benefit was small.” The decision made no reference to extensive coverage of Morley v . CIA in the New York Times, Fox News, San Diego Union, St. Paul Pioneer Press, CBS News in Dallas, and the New Yorker, among many other news organizations.
The Times and the U.K. Daily Mail, even published a photo, obtained by the lawsuit, of CIA officer George Joannides receiving a medal after he stonewalled JFK investigators in 1978. In the majority view, public interest in Morley v CIA is not a measure of its public benefit.
A strong dissent by Judge Karen Henderson takes a much more balanced and independent view of the case, in my view. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, Henderson points out that the court had previously found that I had met the standard of “public benefit” established in case law.
In a 2013 decision the court stated.
Morley’s request had potential public value. He has proffered—and the CIA has not disputed— that Joannides served as the CIA case officer for a Cuban group, the DRE, with whose officers Oswald was in contact prior to the assassination. Travel records showing a very close match between Joannides’s and Oswald’s times in New Orleans might, for example, have (marginally) supported one of the hypotheses swirling around the assassination. In addition, this court has previously determined that Morley’s request sought information “central” to an intelligence committee’s inquiry into the performance of the CIA and other federal agencies in investigating the assassination. Under these circumstances, there was at least a modest probability that Morley’s request would generate information relevant to the assassination or later investigations.
“In other words,” Henderson writes, “we held that Morley satisfied the public-benefit factor in this case,”
By ignoring this finding, Henderson argues, the majority opinion ultimately depends on the assertion that the CIA responded “reasonably” to my request. Yet, Henderson notes, the ruling also ignores the fact that the appellate court had ruled the agency’s initial response to my FOIA request was deficient on seven different legal points.
The majority discusses five in its opinion. It acknowledges that the CIA: (1) missed the 20-day statutory deadline to respond, Maj. Op. 7; (2) incorrectly referred Morley to NARA rather than responding to his FOIA request itself, Maj. Op. 7-11; (3) failed to search its operational files, Maj. Op. 11; (4) submitted an incomplete Glomar response, Maj. Op. 11-12; and (5) relied on an interpretation of Exemption 2 that was later overruled, Maj. Op. 12. It addresses these errors of law seriatim and labels them “incorrect legally,” Maj. Op. 9, but not “unreasonable.” To me, the CIA’s multiple flawed legal positions suggests that it was “recalcitrant” in declining to produce any documents before being sued. Davy IV, 550 F.3d at 1162. At the least, the errors collectively undermine the district court’s conclusion that the fourth factor “weighs heavily against Morley.” Morley X, 245 F. Supp. 3d at 78 (emphasis added).
In sum, I believe the district court erred on two levels: it erred in evaluating each of the four factors individually and abused its discretion in weighing them against one another. Accordingly, this case does not call for “[d]eference piled on deference.” Maj. Op. 11. It calls for an adherence to Davy IV and our four earlier Morley opinions. Because I believe the district court ignored our mandate and misapplied our precedent, I would vacate the district court order a fifth time and remand with instructions to award Morley the attorney’s fees to which he is entitled.
Unfortunately, the majority, meaning Kavanaugh and Trump appointee Judge Gregory Katsas, disagreed. I have 45 days to appeal.