Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association

PETITIONER: Department of Interior
RESPONDENT: Klamath Water Users Protective Association
LOCATION: Office of Attorney General

DOCKET NO.: 99-1871
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 1 (2001)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 2001
DECIDED: Mar 05, 2001

ADVOCATES:
Andrew Hitchings - Argued the cause for the respondent
Malcolm L. Stewart - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) administers the Klamath Irrigation Project (Project), which uses water from the Klamath River Basin to irrigate parts of Oregon and California. In order for the Department to provide water allocations among competing uses and users, it asked the Klamath and other Indian Tribes (Basin Tribes or Tribes) to consult with Reclamation. A memorandum of understanding solidified this relationship. When the Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (Bureau) filed claims on behalf of the Klamath Tribe in Oregon to allocate water rights, the two exchanged written memorandums on the appropriate scope of the claims submitted by the Government for the benefit of the Tribe. Afterwards, the Klamath Water Users Protective Association (Association), a nonprofit group, whose members receive water from the Project and, generally, have interests adverse to the tribal interest because of the scarcity of water, filed requests with the Bureau under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to communications between the Bureau and the Basin Tribes. Some documents were turned over, but the Bureau held other documents under the deliberative process privileges incorporated in FOIA Exemption 5, which exempts from disclosure "inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency." The Association sued to compel release of the documents. The District Court granted the government summary judgment. In reversing, the Court of Appeals ruled out any application of Exemption 5 on the ground that the Tribes with whom the Department has a consulting relationship have a direct interest in the subject matter of the consultations.

Question

Are documents shared between the Klamath and other Indian Tribes and the Department of the Interior, which address tribal interests subject to state and federal proceedings to determine water allocations, exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, as " inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters?"

Media for Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 2001 in Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 05, 2001 in Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association

William H. Rehnquist:

99-1871 Department of the Interior versus the Klamath Water Users Protective Association will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

When the Department of the Interior began developing a plan to provide water allocations among competing users, the Department asked local Indian Tribes to consult with the Department on the matter.

During roughly the same period, the Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs filed claims on behalf of one of the tribes in an Oregon State Court water rights adjudication.

The respondent Klamath Water Users Protective Association, the group whose member’s water rights interests are adverse to those of the tribes, filed suit under the Freedom on Information Act to compel release of communications between the tribes and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau sought to withhold several documents as privileged and therefore covered by Freedom of Information Act Exemption 5, which exempts from disclosure inter or intra-agency memorandums which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigating with the agency.

The District Court granted the government summary judgment and the Ninth Circuit Reversed.

We granted certiorari and in a unanimous opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we affirmed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit and hold that the documents are not exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

There are two conditions we are qualifying as exempt under exemption 5: first, the document source must be a Government agency; second, it must fall within the ambit of some privilege against discovery under standards that would govern litigation against the agency that holds the documents.

Although the documents in this case may satisfy the second privilege condition, either as attorney work-product or as part of the agency's deliberative process.

They fail to satisfy the first threshold condition of being inter or intra-agency.

We have recognized that some Courts of Appeals have held that a document prepared for an agency by a non governmental consultant may none the less qualify as an intra-agency memorandum, where the submissions by outside consultants play essentially the same part in an agency’s deliberative process as documents prepared by agency personnel, and where they do not reflect particular interest, that might be affected by the proposed government action.

The tribes on the contrary necessarily communicate with the department, with their own albeit entirely legitimate interests in mind.

Interests that are in competitions with those of other seeking benefits that are inadequate to satisfy everyone.

Nor is it enough to pull these documents within Exemption 5 to say that compelled release of the documents would impair the Department’s performance of its fiduciary obligations to the tribes.

There is simply no support for reading the Indian trust exemption into the statute which we read strictly to serve the Freedom of Information Act mandate of broad disclosure.