Court rules emails from White House science adviser's personal account subject to open records law

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A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that work-related emails from a private account used by the White House's top science adviser are subject to disclosure under federal open records laws.

The ruling from the three-judge panel is a win for government watchdog groups and media organizations concerned that public officials may be skirting public disclosure requirements by relying on private email.

The court 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 decision 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 Obama administration'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.

The ruling came on the same day that the FBI announced it would not seek criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state. While it does not mention Clinton's case, the decision could help conservative groups that have filed a separate civil lawsuit against the State Department over the agency's failure to turn over files from Clinton's private server under the Freedom of Information Act.

The dispute over Holdren involved emails he sent and received on an account run by the Woods Hole Research Center, a nonprofit climate change think tank based in Falmouth, Mass.

Writing for the court, Judge David Sentelle said there was no evidence that the private center had any control of the content of Holdren's emails just because he used the center's email system.

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.