FOIA Advisor

FOIA News: More on SCOTUS Exemption 4 case

FOIA News (2019)Allan BlutsteinComment

Argument analysis: Justices appear likely to endorse broader reading of FOIA exemption for “confidential” commercial information

By Mark Fenster, SCOTUSblog, Apr. 23, 2019

An observer might be excused if she was confused by Monday’s oral argument in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. The case concerns the application of the term “confidential” commercial or financial information in Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act to grocery-store data collected from transactions involving debit cards issued to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits recipients. A South Dakota newspaper had requested the data as part of its investigations into the SNAP program. FOIA cases typically inspire at least gestural exhortations about the necessity of an informed public and the danger that excessive governmental disclosure poses to the nation. Instead, the justices first spent a fair amount of time on complex justiciability issues that arose late in the litigation and then focused on dry questions of statutory interpretation. This was in part the product of the factual and procedural issues in this case, but it suggests that the court may follow the lead of 2011’s Milner v. Department of Navy and reverse purpose-driven lower-court interpretations of FOIA in favor of statutory textualism.

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