By Julian Hattem - 02/23/16 02:22 PM EST
A federal judge on Tuesday declared that top aides to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be questioned under oath about their role in her controversial email setup.
The ruling from Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will allow for conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch to explore whether Clinton’s unusual arrangement amounted to deliberate thwarting of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on behalf of the State Department.
The evidence-gathering process, formally known as discovery, should be “narrowly tailored,” Sullivan warned.
Even so, the order amounts to another legal headache for Clinton as she seeks to win the Democratic presidential nomination amid heated calls from critics who say she should face criminal charges over her handling of classified information.
Tuesday’s order also comes just a week before the State Department is scheduled to release the last of the roughly 30,000 Clinton emails in its possession.
The court order “is a major victory for the public’s right to know the truth about Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton jokes shirtless supporters are 'a little distracting' Pelosi, Dems rush to defense of Wasserman Schultz Poll: Clinton leads Trump in Wisconsin by double digits MORE’s email system,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.
Fitton promised to demand answers from both current and former State Department officials to “determine why the State Department and Mrs. Clinton, even despite receiving numerous FOIA requests, kept the record system secret for years.”
The process of questioning Clinton’s aides — and perhaps even Clinton herself — could drag on for months.
“This case is about the public’s right to know,” declared Sullivan, who was an appointee of her husband, former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonTrump aide mistakenly emails Politico reporter for Clinton dirt Warren hits back: Trump defaults to 'conspiracies and lies' Woman who accused Bill Clinton of rape 'not unhappy' to be in new Trump ad MORE, according to The Washington Post.
“There has been a constant drip, drip, drip of declarations. When does it stop?”
Those drips, Sullivan added, have amounted to “at least a ‘reasonable suspicion’ ” that record keeping laws might have been violated, the Post reported.
Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, dismissed the development as part of a “right wing attack,” noting Judicial Watch’s conservative stance.
“It’s the judge’s decision to make,” Mook said on CNN. “My point is this is promulgated by a right-wing group. Our campaign is accustomed to these right-wing attacks and they’re going to continue.”
“We’re just going to stay focused.”
Sullivan hinted that he might order the government to issue a subpoena to Clinton and longtime aide Huma Abedin that would force them to hand over all of the emails from Clinton’s personal server.
Clinton has handed over about half of the roughly 60,000 emails she sent and received as secretary. The rest of the messages, she says, were personal in nature and were deleted.
Sullivan declined to take the step of ordering a subpoena Tuesday.
“While Mrs. Clinton’s testimony may not be required initially, it may happen that her testimony is necessary for the court to resolve the legal issues about her unprecedented email practices,” Fitton said in his Tuesday afternoon statement.
The Obama administration could still appeal the decision.
In the meantime, Sullivan on Tuesday ordered Judicial Watch to file an initial plan for the questioning by March 15. The State Department has until April 5 to respond, and then Judicial Watch will have 10 more days to file a motion in reply.
Judicial Watch is seeking documents about Abedin’s special employment arrangement, which allowed her to work at the State Department and outside organizations at the same time.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2013 and reopened following last year’s revelation that Clinton exclusively used a personal email account tied to a private server during her tenure at State.
In addition to serving as a continued drag on Clinton’s presidential campaign, the new order could add to the legal troubles facing the State Department, which has been ensnared by a flurry of legal fights over Clinton’s emails.
“We have more than 50 simultaneous investigations going on, and we have an unprecedented number of FOIA requests,” Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryGOP senator calls for China to crack down on illegal opioid Obamas to live in home of former Clinton press secretary: report Even in defeat, Trump could harm the country irreparably MORE said in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, referring to the strain that the email issue has placed on his department.
“I have had to cannibalize bureaus to get people to go spend their time on these requests.”