On August 8, 2018, the Brennan Center—in conjunction with Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the Department of Justice (DOJ) in U.S. District Court for the release of non-sensitive court docket information for publicly filed terrorism-related prosecutions. This docket information is maintained by the DOJ Offices of the United States Attorneys and is readily available in DOJ’s Legal Information Office Network System (“LIONS”) database, the principal method by which DOJ maintains information about its investigations and prosecutions. The missing docket information is necessary to track down all the cases in the LIONS database that prosecutors have categorized as related to terrorism.
The DOJ initially would not release docket information maintained in LIONS, arguing that the release of this material would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of third parties. But in March 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss partially granted the Brennan Center’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that DOJ needed to disclose the docket numbers for cases designated as terrorism-related that resulted in a conviction or guilty plea. The DOJ identified 3,843 such cases between January 1, 2006 to September 30, 2020. However, the DOJ filed a motion for partial reconsideration, arguing that, while criminal convictions are public, some of the cases tagged as terrorism in LIONS were not publicly labeled as such or did not have anything to do with terrorism.
To get a better picture, Judge Moss asked the DOJ to release the 427 docket numbers for publicly linked international terrorism convictions and asked the DOJ to review a sample of 100 domestic terrorism cases. Only 11 had only been publicly linked to terrorism. Of the remainder, over half were coded as terrorism because the investigation suggested a possible terrorism connection, over a third were labeled with terrorism for reasons “unknown,” and five were entered in error.
Judge Moss then ordered the DOJ to complete a rolling review of the remaining cases and to disclose docket numbers of those that met the statutory definition of domestic terrorism or were publicly linked to terrorism (e.g., in charging documents, sentencing memoranda, requests for sentence enhancement, and press releases). By March 2023, the DOJ had reviewed some 1,080 dockets, releasing only 68 docket numbers. Of the dockets withheld, around a quarter had already been released by the department. Almost three-quarters of the remaining dockets were originally coded as terrorism cases, but may have turned into something else, and the DOJ claimed there was insufficient information about the rest to determine why they were originally coded as terrorism.
Brennan Center FOIA Request (January 17, 2018)
Brennan Center Complaint (August 8, 2018)
Memorandum Opinion on Summary Judgment (March 12, 2020)
Order Regarding DOJ Docket Processing (August 8, 2021)
Transcript of July 2021 Status Conference (July 27, 2021)
Transcript of December 2022 Status Conference (December 1, 2022)