Court overturns order keeping 'Fast and Furious' documents secret

A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a lower court ruling that kept a lid on a handful of documents related to a lawsuit from Congress over the Obama administration’s botched “Fast and Furious” operation.

The ruling does not necessarily mean that the eight documents will be released. Instead, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit merely referred the matter back to a lower court to seek clarity about another judge’s order.

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At issue are a few dozen pages of documents that lawyers representing the Justice Department and the House hammered out in 2013, while discussing a settlement about the House’s lawsuit over “Fast and Furious.”

The government ultimately did not reach a settlement in those negotiations. It would take until this January for District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to demand that the Justice Department release documents about the failed “gun-walking” operation. 

But in March 2013, the conservative legal watchdog organization Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking “any and all records of communications, correspondence and contacts” between the two parties during that attempt at a settlement.

The Obama administration refused to hand over the 32 pages of corresponding documents, claiming that they were under a “court-imposed non-disclosure” rules.

Judicial Watch sued. Another district court judge ruled in favor of the government in 2014.

In Friday’s ruling, however, the three-judge panel on the appeals court claimed that Jackson did not make an “explicit” request to “prohibit disclosure” of the documents when she ordered the mediation in 2013. Instead, she merely claimed that “I don’t want to know.”

“[I]t is equally plausible that Judge Jackson wanted simply to preserve her objectivity in case she ultimately were to preside over a trial,” appeals court Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the judges in Friday’s decision. “Accordingly, the intended effect of Judge Jackson’s order is ambiguous."

The appeals court ordered the matter back to a lower court so that Jackson could give “clarification” about “the intended effect and scope of her order.”

“Fast and Furious” ran from 2009 to 2011, and involved a failed effort to track guns as they made their way into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.