Monday, January 24, 2005
from Alan Morrison
Ronald L. Plesser was a very good man and a very fine lawyer. Ron was the first lawyer who came to work with me at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in April 1972. His job was to put the Freedom of Information Act – known to all who use it and love it, as well as their adversaries, as FOIA – on the map. Passed in 1966, it was little used by anyone except a few businesses when Ron took on the assignment. Immediately, Ron began taking unanswered FOIA requests from other parts of Public Citizen, as well as from other public interest groups and journalists, and taking federal agencies to court for not turning over the documents. The defendants were from a wide range of federal agencies, from the FBI, to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to the Civil Service Commission, to the Department of Transportation; Ron sued them all. One day when he was with Ralph Nader on a congressional panel on FOIA, Ralph was asked which agency was the worst. His answer was one that Ron would have given also: “Knock on any door.” And knock Ron did, but mostly on courthouse doors.
Ron understood from the start the importance of holding the collective feet of agencies to the FOIA fire. He understood that agencies were not evil, but mainly did not like FOIA, saw that no good (to them) ever came from it, and would much prefer to keep their own secrets. He just determined not to let them get away with it. He won lots of cases, but not all of them. He also saw the need to make changes in the law, and he and Ralph and the folks at Congress Watch were very instrumental in bringing about the 1974 amendments to FOIA and overriding a veto of President Gerald Ford so that they became law. One of the changes of which Ron was mostly justly proud was a provision that allowed victorious plaintiffs to get attorneys fees from recalcitrant agencies in FOIA cases. Litigation was his primary tool, but he saw the need for legislation in this area, as well in the many fields in which he worked after leaving our office.
Ron worked with me for only two and half years, but his FOIA legacy lives on. Public Citizen still makes great use of FOIA, and the Litigation Group still brings many lawsuits each year to enforce it. Agencies are still reluctant to disclose their records, although the reasons they once gave are no longer tried, thanks in part to Ron’s efforts. Ron left us to work for the Privacy Commission and then went on to greater glory in the private sector while continuing to serve the broader public interest in a way that should be a model for all lawyers.
A final memory of Ron keeps popping into my mind as I think of him. One day, one of our very bright and playful typists drew a big heart with an arrow through it, with this written inside the heart: “RLP loves FOIA.” It was, of course, completely true, and it was one of the reasons why so many people loved Ron. We will miss him very much, but the world is a better place for his having passed through it.