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DOJ ordered to reply to Twitter lawsuit despite partial government shutdown

January 3, 2019

A federal judge ruled Wednesday against letting the ongoing partial government shutdown completely derail a First Amendment lawsuit filed by Twitter against the U.S. Department of Justice.

U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Rogers ordered the Justice Department to respond to Twitter’s lawsuit by Jan. 18, notwithstanding a lapse of appropriations impacting government business across Washington starting last Saturday, Dec. 22.

“Resolution of the core issues in this litigation and the state secrets issues the Government seeks to assert are of the utmost significance and must not be hindered by further delay,” wrote Judge Rogers, an Obama appointee to the bench in the Northern District of California.

Twitter declined to comment on the ruling, and the Justice Department did not immediately return a message inquiring about the government’s reaction.

Filed in Oct. 2014, Twitter sued the Justice Department after being told that national security concerns prohibited the company from legally revealing the exact number of requests for user data it receives from federal authorities.

Lawyers for the Justice Department subsequently defended the decision in the form of submitting to the judge a declaration in 2016 from Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s former executive assistant director. The government contested the filing contained classified information, however, keeping Twitter’s own attorney from accessing the declaration over two years later.

Twitter asked the judge on Dec. 5 to let its legal counsel view the declaration. Funding for the federal government lapsed 17 days later, and the Justice Department accordingly filed a motion on Dec. 26 requesting a stay in legal proceedings, prompting the judge’s response Wednesday.

Shutdown aside, it is “essential that the Department of Justice attorneys continue their work in responding to the Order to Show Cause.”

The judge gave the government 16 days to file explain why Twitter’s legal team should be denied access to the declaration. Twitter will have a week afterward to file a reply, and the government will then have until Feb. 1 to request oral arguments, the judge ordered Wednesday.

Twitter’s access to the classified declaration may be the only issue in the lawsuit resolved for a while, however. Other proceedings in the matter are stayed, Judge Rogers ordered, “until Congress has appropriated to permit resumption of usual civil litigation functions.”

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