Usually, IJ’s victories come to us as the lawyers in a case. In our latest state supreme court victory, however, we won as a client. In May, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that IJ is entitled to government documents we first requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in September 2013.
When we first began asking pro bono attorneys to represent IJ itself in FOIA lawsuits, we had two goals: to support IJ’s strategic research team in getting the information it needs to produce high-quality research and reports and to set legal precedent that will help other people who seek records from the government. The Illinois case has done everything we hoped.
IJ’s strategic research program serves a critically important role in our work. We need data about the effects of government policies, but that information usually does not already exist. So IJ must collect those data ourselves, and one of our main methods is through freedom of information requests.
The amount of effort it takes to pry even simple documents out of government files is staggering. It took IJ and a team of lawyers at one of the top law firms in the country more than five years in this case. The agency actually persuaded the Illinois Legislature to change the law to exempt from FOIA the exact records we asked for, and then it turned around and argued in court that now it would never have to produce them.
If this is what happens when a nationally recognized institution full of lawyers asks for public records, imagine what happens when an individual citizen acting alone makes a request. And that is the other purpose of our FOIA lawsuits—to make it easier for everyone to get information from the government. The Illinois Supreme Court decision sets an example for other states to follow.