Today we present an interview with Jason R. Baron, Professor of the Practice at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.
What prompted you to seek appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee?
This will be my second “tour of duty” on the FOIA Advisory Committee in the years after I left working as a government lawyer. I had previously served as the first appointed Director of Litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for 13 years, before joining a private law firm and then most recently being appointed to the faculty at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. Both at NARA and in my prior role as a litigator in the Department of Justice, I had the privilege of defending the White House and the Archivist in a number of FOIA lawsuits, as well as in litigation involving the preservation of White House records. Because I continue to have a great interest in improving access to government records (due in part to being a now frequent FOIA requester myself), I view appointment to the Committee as a meaningful way to continue in a public service role in helping to make the FOIA process better—both for requesters as well as for FOIA professionals inside government.
What do you hope to accomplish from this experience?
The Committee serves an important role in its providing recommendations and best practices to the whole of the executive branch. I hope that the work of the current Committee will move the ball forward in making government records more accessible, which in turn contributes to increased government transparency and accountability.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
Two words: electronic records. Due in large part to NARA policies such as Capstone, over the next several decades billions of emails and other forms of electronic records will be preserved by agencies. A portion of those will constitute permanent records subject to transfer to NARA in their electronic form. These records will all be subject to the FOIA. The government needs to adopt the best tools and techniques, including AI and machine learning, to tackle the unimaginably large electronic records repositories and archives that are fast accumulating. I also know that the legal industry has faced similar challenges over the last decade in e-discovery, and has much technical wisdom to impart if agency staff are open to embracing new ideas in how to more efficiently process FOIA requests.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience.
Now that I am a government outsider who files FOIA requests, it would be much easier to talk about my least favorite recent FOIA experiences (plural)! I did have the privilege during my time at DOJ and NARA in defending lawsuits challenging whether components of the Executive Office of the President created presidential or federal records (the latter of which would be immediately subject to FOIA). Litigating these matters brought me into meetings with senior lawyers in the West Wing on multiple occasions, including being invited to meet with President George W. Bush in his last weeks in office. And whether it was in a FOIA lawsuit or otherwise, I always considered it the highest honor to be able to stand up in court to say that I was “counsel representing the United States.” Those occasions are among my favorite FOIA-related experiences during the 33 years I spent in public service.