A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that work-related emails on a private account used by the White House’s top science adviser are subject to disclosure under federal open records laws.
The three-judge panel sided with a conservative think tank that had filed a lawsuit seeking emails from John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The ruling overturns a lower court judge that said Holdren’s office did not have to comply with the Freedom of Information Act request from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the agency’s argument that emails on a private server were outside the government’s control.
The court said the agency does not necessarily have to disclose the emails, but must search through them and determine whether any are subject to public disclosure requirements. It sent the case back to the lower court to make that determination.
Media organizations including The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the American Society of News Editors have backed the lawsuit.
“If the agency head controls what would otherwise be an agency record, then it is still an agency record and still must be searched or produced,” Judge David Sentelle said.
The dispute involves emails Holdren sent and received on an account run by the Woods Hole Research Center, a nonprofit climate change think tank based in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Sentelle said the ruling serves the purpose of federal open records laws, which help the public keep track of what the government is doing.
“If a department head can deprive the citizens of their right to know what his department is up to by the simple expedient of maintaining his departmental emails on an account in another domain, that purpose is hardly served,” he said.