In Camera Inspection

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In camera inspection means a judge will review the unredacted versions of contested records to independently evaluate whether they are exempt from disclosure (i.e. as the relevant agency has claimed).

The FOIA specifically authorizes in camera examination of documents.[1] However, district courts have broad discretion to decide if this type of review is necessary, and thus, they may validly refuse to allow in camera inspection (for example, where agencies have met their burden by means of sufficiently detailed affidavits). It has been noted that "[i]n camera inspection requires effort and resources and therefore a court should not resort to it routinely on the theory that 'it can't hurt.'"[2]

In cases involving a large volume of documents, where appropriate the court may request that a smaller sample of documents be submitted for in camera inspection.[3]


As aforementioned, district courts have broad discretion to decide whether in camera inspection is necessary. Consequently, there is no bright-line rule as regards what must be demonstrated by the plaintiff before inspection will take place.

However, courts are generally inclined to permit in camera inspection where agency affidavits/ Vaughn Indices are insufficiently detailed to permit meaningful review. [4]

In camera inspection will also be particularly appropriate where:

  • The records involved are brief and limited in number [5]
  • There is evidence of bad faith on the part of the agency [6]
  • There is strong public interest in conducting an in camera inspection [7]
  • The court has already instructed the agency to amend/ improve its Vaughn Index, but problems remain [8]
  • The dispute turns on the contents of the document, and not the parties' interpretation of the document [9]

Parties Present at an In Camera Inspection

Generally, in camera inspection may be either ex parte or in the presence of both parties. [10] However, in camera inspection of Exemption 1 cases is typically ex parte - that is to say, neither the plaintiff nor their counsel will be permitted to be present.

Recent district court cases regarding in camera reivew

Recent district court cases regarding this topic from TRAC's FOIA Project. Visit their issue search page for more options.

See Also

External Links


  1. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(B) (2006 & Supp. IV 2010); see also S. Conf. Rep. No. 93-1200, at 9 (1974), reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6267, 6287.
  2. Ray v. Turner, 587 F.2d 1187, 1195 (D.C. Cir. 1978)
  3. N.Y. Pub. Interest Res. Group v. EPA, 249 F. Supp. 2d 327, 331 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); Dickstein Shapiro LLP v. DOD, 730 F. Supp. 2d 6, 10 (D.D.C. 2010)
  4. See, for example, Islamic Shura Council of S. Cal. v. FBI 635 F.3d 1160, 1166 (9th Cir. 2011); Spirko v. USPS 147 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 1998); Quiñon v. FBI; 86 F.3d 1222, 1229 (D.C. Cir. 1996); In re DOJ. 999 F.2d 1302, 1310 (8th Cir. 1993) (en banc)
  5. People for the Am. Way Found. v. Nat'l Park Serv., 503 F. Supp. 2d 284, 307 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Elec. Privacy Info. Ctr., 384 F. Supp. 2d 100, 119 (D.D.C. 2005)); Maynard v. CIA, 986 F.2d 547, 558 (1st Cir. 1993)
  6. Cole v. DOJ, No. 05-674, 2006 WL 2792681, at *5 (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2006)
  7. Dean v. FDIC, 389 F. Supp. 2d 780, 789 (E.D. Ky. 2005)
  8. Int'l Counsel Bureau v. DOD, No. 08-1063, 2012 WL 1865413 (D.D.C. May 23, 2012)
  9. Allen v. Central Intelligence Agency, 636 F.2d 1287 (D.C.Cir.1980)
  10. Weatherhead v. United States, 157 F.3d 735, at note 3 (9th Cir. 1998).