The 11th annual Freedom of Information Day conference was held at the Newseum March 13, and here, before it fades away, is a quick post to note two newsworthy happenings from the day.
First was the keynote address given by House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers, (D-Mich.) "We've come out of a horrible period," Conyers said, referring to the misdeeds of the Bush administration. In January his committee issued a lengthy report (.pdf) on the constitutional excesses of the Bush years, including overreaching in areas of executive power and politicizing the Justice Department.
"We came very close to removal proceedings on the President on a large number of counts," said Conyers. He said the recent agreement reached to require testimony from Karl Rove and Harriet Miers on the firing of U.S. attorneys creates an opportunity to "strengthen the law and increase openness" when officials claim executive privilege.
Asked about President Barack Obama's recent use of a signing statement -- after having criticized Bush for the same practice -- Conyers said "it wasn't one of the... great positions he has taken," though he stopped short of saying signing statements are always inappropriate. Signing statements are used by presidents as they sign bills into law to indicate provisions they think are unconstitutional or they won't enforce.
Will federal courts ever open their doors to camera coverage of their proceedings? Eventually, Conyers said, but it's been a tough sell. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Conyers said, "is stoutly resisting them."
Also at the conference, the American Library Association gave its James Madison Award to Tom Susman, formerly of Ropes & Gray and currently the government affairs director of the American Bar Association. As a Hill staffer 35 years ago, Susman was there -- and participating -- at the creation of the amended Freedom of Information Act that is still in place. And in private practice, Susman was a steady advocate for government openness.
In a statement issued with the award, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. said of Susman, "He has... seen the fragility of laws like the Freedom of Information Act, especially when agencies drag their feet. Tom has always been a dependably ally in the struggle to keep the flame alive."
In accepting the award, Susman said, "It's been a great run," but more work needs to be done to establish procedures and a mindset that fosters openness, not only at the federal and state levels, but also in the international arena. Susman also spoke of the need for FOI advocates to join together to press for more openness from the District of Columbia government.