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Southwest Center for Biological Diversity v. United States Department of Agriculture



The issue in this case was whether a statute could be applied to an action pending when that statute was enacted. The statute in question was the National Parks Omnibus Management Act (the Act),[1] specifically section 207,[2] which created an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).[3] The district court held that section 207 applied to the pending action. The issue arose in March 1998, when the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and Robin Silver, M.D. (collectively the Center) filed a FOIA request with the United States Forest Service (USFS) for information regarding the northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). After receiving no response from USFS, the Center brought an action to compel the release of the information. USFS subsequently delivered a portion of the information but claimed exemption under FOIA for the remainder of the information.

While the action was pending, Congress passed the Act. Section 207 of the Act states that “[i]nformation concerning the nature and specific location of a National Park System resource which is endangered, threatened, [or] rare . . . within units of the National Park System . . . may be withheld from the public in response to a request under [FOIA].”[4] The Center argued that section 207 could not be applied in this action because its action was pending when the Act was enacted. The Ninth Circuit reviewed the issue de novo.

The Ninth Circuit balanced the rule that a court should apply the law in effect at the time of a decision with the rule declaring a presumption against statutory retroactivity. In referring to the test set forth in Landgraf v. USI Film Products,[5] the court first addressed whether Congress specified if the statute should apply. The Ninth Circuit determined that Congress had not specified whether the statute should apply; therefore it considered the second part of the test, which applies the statute unless it would have an “impermissible retroactive effect.”[6] The court found that application of the statute would not have an impermissible retroactive effect on the Center because the Center had not taken “action in reliance on prior law.”[7] Thus, based on the Landgraf test, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court decision to apply the statute to the pending action.


[1] 16 U.S.C. §§ 5901, 5911-14, 5931-37, 5951-66, 5981-82, 5991-95, 6011 (2000).

[2] Id. § 5937.

[3] 5 U.S.C. § 552 (2000).

[4] Southwest Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. United States Dep’t of Agric. (Southwest Center), 314 F.3d 1060, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting National Parks Omnibus Management Act, 16 U.S.C. § 5937 (2000)).

[5] 511 U.S. 244, 273 (1994).

[6] Southwest Center, 314 F.3d at 1062. The court gave some examples of impermissible retroactive effects. For example, if it “would impair rights a party possessed when he acted, increase a party’s liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed,” then application of the statute would have an impermissible retroactive effect. Id. (quoting Landgraf, 511 U.S. at 280).

[7] Id.

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