The Justice Department on Monday asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder that seeks to compel him to turn over withheld agency documents related to Operation Fast and Furious.
In a brief, the department argues that federal court is not the correct venue to handle what it characterizes as a political dispute between the administration and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The Republican-led House panel spearheaded a successful contempt of Congress vote against Holder in June, mostly on a party-line vote. The lawyers argue that President Barack Obama’s assertion of executive privilege over the documents in dispute precludes the courts from intervening in the case.
“[Two hundred] years of political history and court decisions make clear that the process of negotiation and accommodation is not simply the preferred option to resolve inter-Branch disputes over information, but the one that best preserves the separation of powers,” the brief says. “The Committee in the present case has decided that it no longer desires to engage in that process, but would rather proceed to contempt and to court in order to have the Judiciary resolve the dispute for it, enmeshing the Court in a political dispute requiring political judgments. That is not the approach, or a role for the Judiciary, that the Constitution provides, and it is not one that this Court should adopt.”
The matter is before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Oversight Committee and a public face of the congressional inquiry into the scandal, filed the lawsuit in August. Issa’s panel investigated how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of weapons purchased by suspected straw buyers in Arizona, allowing them to cross the border, apparently into the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels.
After the House found Holder in contempt of Congress in June, the department declined to prosecute the charges against its leader. So House Republicans sued Holder to gain access to the documents over which Obama exerted executive privilege.
The committee’s lawsuit is focused on documents related to a February 2011 letter to Congress that the department later rescinded. In that letter, the department asserted that it did not allow weapons it was tracking to cross the border into Mexico, which was later revealed to be false. The committee is seeking those documents to see if the department was involved in an attempted cover-up of the operation. Holder and other department leaders have repeatedly denied that allegation.
Last month, the department’s Inspector General released a several hundred page report detailing mistakes during the firearms operation. It found fault with a number of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents and other department officials, spurring one to resign and another to retire.
Monday’s filing was signed by Stuart Delery, Justice Department Civil Division acting chief; Ian Heath Gershengorn, deputy assistant attorney general; Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Federal Programs Branch; John R. Tyler, Assistant Branch Director; and trial attorneys Eric Womack, Gregory Dworkowitz and Luke Jones.
On Tuesday afternoon, Issa released a statement on the Justice Department’s legal brief:
“The Obama Administration’s argument should trouble Americans who believe the President and the Federal government are not above the law. In perpetuating a cover-up, through false and misleading statements that even the Justice Department’s own Inspector General found troubling, the Obama administration argued for months that it did not have to meet its legal obligations to a lawfully issued congressional subpoena. Now, the Department is advancing arguments – already rejected by the federal judiciary – that our court system does not have jurisdiction to ensure accountability either. The American people deserve to know the full truth about what happened in Operation Fast and Furious and why top justice officials stood behind false denials of reckless conduct.”