A U.S. judge ordered the Justice and State departments Thursday to reopen an inquiry into whether Hillary Clinton used a private email server while secretary of state to deliberately evade public records laws, and to answer whether the agencies acted in bad faith by not telling a court for months that they had asked in mid-2014 for missing emails to be returned.
The order risks reopening partisan wounds that have barely healed since Clinton's unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid, but in issuing the order Thursday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act required it.
In a narrow but sharply worded 10-page opinion, Lamberth wrote that despite the government's claimed presumption of transparency, "faced with one of the gravest modern offenses to government openness, [the Obama administration's] State and Justice departments fell far short" of the law's requirements in a lawsuit for documents.
Lamberth added that despite President Donald Trump's repeated campaign attacks against Clinton for not making her emails public, "the current Justice Department made things worse," by taking the position that agencies are not obliged to search for records not in the government's possession when a FOIA request is made.
Lamberth wrote he took no pleasure in "questioning the intentions of the nation's most august" Cabinet departments, but said it was necessary when their response "smacks of outrageous misconduct."
Conservative legal watchdog group Judicial Watch filed its FOIA lawsuit in July 2014 seeking State Department talking points issued after the September 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, that left the U.S. ambassador dead.
The suit came months before news broke in March 2015 that Clinton exclusively used a private email account as secretary from 2009 to 2013.
Between July 2014 and March 2015, the State Department said in court filings that its document searches were adequate and did not mention unsearched records as it, proposed to settle the case. The agencies later acknowledged that additional searches would be needed, without disclosing that it had received 30,000 emails returned by Clinton.
At best, Lamberth said the government's actions reflect "negligence born of incompetence," adding, "At worst, career employees in the State and Justice departments colluded to scuttle public scrutiny of Clinton, skirt FOIA, and hoodwink this court."
Lamberth said he had delayed ruling on the order until a similar 2016 case before another federal judge in the District had wound down.
Lamberth ordered the government's attorneys to meet with Judicial Watch and by Dec. 17 propose to answer additional questions into whether "Clinton used a private email to stymie FOIA, whether State's attempts to settle the case in 2014 and 2015 amounted to bad faith, and whether State's subsequent searches have been adequate."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday.
Its attorneys in October before Lamberth conceded some errors in the case's handling but said that none amounted to bad faith or lying, that records were searched soon after they were received and that exhaustive reports by the FBI, inspector general and a House panel that investigated the Benghazi attacks settled the matter.
Clinton has said consistently she used her personal email system as a matter of convenience while she was secretary of state, and that she took responsibility for her mistake.