Does an answer like this, which denies jurisdiction of the Court
without explanation, meet the requirement in rule 8 that denials must
fairly address the substance of the allegations? For example, it seems
an absurd denial for a government lawyer to argue that 28 U.S.C § 1361
does not grant original jurisdiction to the district court for an
action seeking a writ of mandamus to a federal official.
This is proper.
Allegations of law don't have to be admitted or denied. The response given is the standard response to any allegation of law. Allegations number 1, 2, and 9-14 are all allegations of law. The only factual allegations are allegations 3-7 (with allegation 8 merely unnecessarily reincorporating the previous allegations by reference).
Furthermore, a bare denial of an itemized allegation of fact is sufficient, without further explanation.
Does the government limit its defenses to the jurisdictional issue,
and to the failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted
by not following the rule requires defendants state in short and plain
terms its defenses to each claim asserted against?
The requirement of the rule is to set forth affirmative defenses in the section entitled defenses, but denials of fact sufficient to defeat the elements of the claim for relief sought also suffice.
If further affirmative defenses are discovered in the course of the litigation, the answer can be amended and leave to do so is granted liberally.
In this case, the government is basically saying, "So what? There is no common law right of access, and even if there was one, you as a third-party unconnected to the events doesn't have standing to exercise it."
How might J.W. have done a better job in writing the complaint in a
way that would require a more specific answer?
Judicial Watch could have pursued a cause of action that is recognized under the law.
There is no legally established common law right of access for a third-party as asserted. Judicial Watch really doesn't care if it gets a detailed response in an answer or not. It is trying to establish new law that is not present in prior precedents.
Also, in modern civil litigation, the main means of getting factual information is though disclosures and discovery required later in the litigation process. The notion that the answer to the complaint should be a significant source of substantive disclosure of facts was largely abandoned in connection with the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in the 1930s.
The denial of jurisdiction is primarily on the basis of lack of standing (since lack of standing is one form of lack of subject matter jurisdiction). It has not alleged that is has members who suffered an injury to a legally protected right, or that the entity itself suffered an injury to a legally protected right.
It is likely that the complaint will be dismissed summarily in early motion practice, probably for lack of standing. The J.W. complaint is short in an effort to make the scope of that notion practice narrow and less expensive.