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I'm interested in understanding how lawyers and judges analyze the pleadings provided in the answer to a civil complaint. Therefore, I'll choose an interesting case I'm not involved in and provide a link to a folder containing both the complaint and the answer. In addition, I've generated a document combining the content of both pleadings, as the way the answer is written makes it impossible to interpret alone.

The case is pending as Judicial Watch v. U.S. Capitol Police (Case 1:21-cv-00401) in the U.S. District Court for DC. I have several related questions:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. How might J.W. have done a better job in writing the complaint in a way that would require a more specific answer?

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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.

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  • I think the DC Circuit has recognized a limited common-law right to access and spelled out the procedures to determine if it applies. Could you explain how a common law right and a cause of action differ? Aug 9 at 2:21
  • @Burt_Harris A cause of action is a claim for relief based upon a specific legal theory. A common law right is one means by which a cause of action can arise. A common law right of access has been recognized for parties to a case in certain circumstances, but I do not think that it applies to a stranger to a case. At any rate, the existence of the right in these circumstance is the real subject of the dispute.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 9 at 2:22
  • In WASHINGTON LEGAL FOUNDATION v. UNITED STATES SENTENCING COMMISSION: "As we explained in our first opinion in this case, the decision whether a document must be disclosed pursuant to the common law right of access involves a two-step inquiry.   *First, the court must decide “whether the document sought is a ‘public record.’   If the answer is yes, then the court should proceed to balance the government's interest in keeping the document secret against the public's interest in disclosure.”  17 F.3d at 1451-52. Aug 9 at 2:29

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