A federal judge scolded the State Department Tuesday for being “lackadaisical” in processing the emails turned over by former Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as messages and notes from other department officials.
Judge Rudolph Contreras said the department has had Mrs. Clinton’s emails since December, and he wondered why it is only now beginning to hire additional reviewers to go over her messages and the tens of thousands of other documents that are being sought as the Obama administration faces an avalanche of open-records requests concerning her time in office.
“This emergency is somewhat its own doing,” Judge Contreras told Justice Department lawyers arguing on behalf of the State Department in court. “The response has been lacking.”
Journalists and public interest groups have filed several dozen open-records requests concerning emails of Mrs. Clinton and her top aides, and the requests have intensified as her presidential campaign has developed.
Those requests are in addition to the already heightened workload the State Department says it’s seen in recent years.
The Justice Department lawyers said they’re working as fast as they can with the resources they have, and are trying to allocate reviewers to handle all of the requests in a fair way.
But journalist Jason Leopold, who brought one of the key Clinton email cases, is arguing the State Department has clammed up in recent years, forcing reporters to make open-records requests under the Freedom of Information Act for information that in the past would have just been released without having to make a formal request.
“There’s been a concerted effort to shuffle journalists — and this is certainly the case with Mr. Leopold — to the FOIA line,” his lawyer, Ryan S. James, told the judge.
Mrs. Clinton turned over 32,000 emails, stretching to 55,000 pages, last December, in response to prodding by the congressional probe into the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack.
But because she turned over paper copies, the State Department said it spent the first five months translating those documents back into electronic versions so they could be entered into the department’s searchable computer system.
All of Mrs. Clinton’s emails are being released on a monthly rolling schedule under an earlier order from Judge Contreras. The final release is slated for the end of January. But department officials say a number of other requests have backed up in the meantime, including Mr. Leopold’s demand for a wide range of documents from other members of the secretary’s office.
That’s one of four open-records requests Mr. Leopold has pending with the department, and Judge Contreras said he’ll have to balance all of those requests to make sure Mr. Leopold, who writes for Vice News, an online investigative news site, doesn’t get an outsized share of government resources devoted to himself.