Today in OpenGov: Meet the Supremes


In today's edition, the fight to fill a spot on the Supreme Court gets expensive fast, the NSA ditches a huge batch of call and text records, we consider the relationship between open data and FOIA, K Street spends big on trade lobbying with little to show, and more. 

Donald trump and the supremes

The United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

News last week that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was retiring from his position rocked Washington. President Trump's pick to fill the seat, and the ensuing confirmation process, are likely to dominate headlines over the summer and into the fall, but a few storylines have already emerged that are worth highlighting in this newsletter: 

  • The White House had been waging a quiet campaign to convince Justice Kennedy to retire ahead of the midterm elections. "President Trump singled him out for praise even while attacking other members of the Supreme Court. The White House nominated people close to him to important judicial posts. And members of the Trump family forged personal connections. Their goal was to assure Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that his judicial legacy would be in good hands should he step down at the end of the court’s term this week, as he was rumored to be considering. Allies of the White House were more blunt, warning the 81-year-old justice that time was of the essence." (New York Times)
  • President Trump hasn't announced his nominee yet, but the confirmation battle is already heating up — and getting expensive. "President Trump hasn't yet nominated a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, but the fight over confirming that nominee began the day Kennedy gave notice…To wage this high-decibel debate, each side is expected to spend tens of millions of dollars. That kind of money can win you a Senate seat. But a Senate term only goes for six years; the Supreme Court bench is good for a lifetime." (NPR)
  • In fact, this is likely to be the most expensive Supreme Court confirmation fight in history. "The fight to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy is expected to be the most expensive Supreme Court confirmation battle in history. Conservative groups predict they will exceed their past expenditures over the summer and fall to boost President Trump’s forthcoming nominee, who could change the ideological balance of the court for years to come. Liberal groups are also expected to spend freely and have warned that Trump’s pick could tip the scales against the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide." (The Hill)

washington watch

The headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade Maryland. Image credit: Trevor Paglan.
  • The NSA destroyed hundreds of millions of call and text records after finding irregularities in collection. "The National Security Agency has purged hundreds of millions of records logging phone calls and texts that it had gathered from American telecommunications companies since 2015, the agency has disclosed. It had realized that its database was contaminated with some files the agency had no authority to receive. The agency began destroying the records on May 23, it said in a statement. Officials had discovered 'technical irregularities' this year in its collection from phone companies of so-called call record details, or metadata showing who called or texted whom and when, but not what they said." (New York Times)
  • Emails, many released via FOIA, show close ties between EPA officials and regulated industries. "The communication between the lobbyists and one of Pruitt’s top policy aides — detailed in emails the agency provided to Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Thomas R. Carper (Del.) — open a window on the often close relationship between the EPA’s political appointees and those they regulate. Littered among tens of thousands of emails that have surfaced in recent weeks, largely through a public records lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, are dozens of requests for regulatory relief by industry players. Many have been granted." (Washington Post)
  • The SEC is moving to require machine-readable data for financial reporting. "The Securities and Exchanges Commission will begin requiring companies to report financial data in machine-readable format. The SEC will phase in rules requiring companies to submit certain financial data filings in the inline XBRL data format over the next three years." (Federal Computer Week) Our take? We've supported efforts to boost open, machine-readable data at the SEC for a long time and view this as a great step in the right direction. 

states and cities

  • We're trying to better understand the relationship between open data and freedom of information in cities. Alena Stern explains, "Last year, 28 U.S. cities published open data policies bringing the total to nearly 120 cities nationwide. This growth spurt has signaled a sweeping move from reactive responses to public records requests to systematically and proactively publishing open data. For most of the last 50 years, Freedom of Information Laws (FOI) have ensured that residents have access to information on government activities as a fundamental, democratic right. But now that many of these cities are “setting the default to open,” city staff are left guessing about how to balance these two varying but equally crucial channels for public access to information." She's working with working with the Sunlight Open Cities team to conduct new research that aims to answer three key questions about the relationship between open data and FOI. (Sunlight Foundation)
  • Tacoma, Washington slammed over cell-sight simulator (Stingray) secrecy. "A judge in Washington state has excoriated the Tacoma Police Department for withholding public records pertaining to its use of cell-site simulators, also known as stingrays." (Ars Technica)
  • California just passed what might be America's toughest privacy law, but critics say they didn't have enough input and efforts are already underway to change it. "The tech industry is mobilizing against a new California privacy law, likely the toughest in the country. The California Consumer Privacy Act was rushed through the state legislature, where it was approved unanimously, and quickly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D)…But the law, which doesn't take effect until 2020, is now the center of a new fight as the tech industry pushes for changes. Robert Callahan, the vice president of state government affairs for the Internet Association, said Thursday that the trade group is worried about the lack of input the bill received before passage." (The Hill)

elsewhere in trumpland

  • K Street is spending big to influence the Trump administration's trade agenda, with little to show. "The tough U.S. trade stance has fueled a lobbying blitz, yet seasoned Washington hands are finding that their old playbooks are of little use in talking the Trump administration out of imposing a broad range of tariffs. Registrations to lobby on trade issues have surged since President Donald Trump took office. But conventional influence tactics employed by K Street veterans, such as cajoling congressional leaders to pressure the White House, have proven less effective under Trump, according to more than a dozen lobbyists." (Bloomberg)
  • Databases are playing a role in the Trump administration's fight against opioids. "Bolstered by harsh law-and-order rhetoric from President Donald Trump and his aides, police around the country are using electronic databases to unleash a vast crackdown on opioid abusers and the allegedly crooked doctors who sustain them. The databases are helping to reduce opioid prescriptions, which have fallen by nearly a third since 2011. Police and disciplinary boards use the records systems to roll up “pill mills,” tag patients who “doctor shop” for multiple pills, and warn doctors about prescribing patterns that stray from norms." (POLITICO)
  • After casting doubt on the intelligence community's conclusions about Russian election interference, President Trump says that it will be a major issue in upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin. "President Trump said Friday that he plans to bring up Russia's efforts to meddle in U.S. elections when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump said that Russia's interference in Ukraine and its role in Syria will also be on the agenda when he meets with Putin on July 16…The president's remarks came a day after he once again cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion that Moscow sought to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, noting in a tweet that Russia still insists that it did no such thing." (The Hill)
  • The latest Trump administration conflicts? Challenge coins, taxpayer spending, Trump Vs. Kushner, and more. Lynn Walsh checked in with her latest roundup of Trump administration conflicts of interest, including "Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, campaign finance reports and other documents reveal political groups and taxpayers have spent at least $16 million at Trump-branded properties since President Donald Trump said he was running for president and the Kushner Companies and the Trump Organization will no longer be partners on an oceanfront development at the Jersey Shore." (Sunlight Foundation)


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