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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday tossed out part of a 2001 order by President George W. Bush that lets former presidents keep some of their presidential papers secret indefinitely.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the U.S. Archivist's reliance on the executive order to delay release of the papers of former presidents is "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with law."
Criticized by historians, the November 2001 order allowed the White House or a former president to block release of a former president's papers and put the onus on researchers to show a "specific need" for many types of records.
"The Bush Order effectively eliminated the archivist's discretion to release a former president's documents while such documents are pending a former president's review, which can be extended -- presumably indefinitely," Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 38-page ruling.
"The average delay caused by a former president's review of a document request is 170 days or nearly, six months," the judge wrote, adding that the Archivist's reliance on the Bush order has "caused" the delay.
The judge did not address provisions of the Executive Order extending the authority over release of presidential papers to a former president's designated representative or to former vice presidents.
The White House had no immediate comment.
The ruling came in a lawsuit led by the National Security Archives, a non-governmental research institute and library at George Washington University. It argued that the Bush order severely slowed or prevented the release of historic presidential papers.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, said the court had avoided "the hard questions" about the role former presidents, former vice presidents, and their heirs can play when it comes to disclosure of presidential records.
"Unless the executive order is reversed or withdrawn, decisions about the release of records from this administration may ultimately be made by the Bush daughters," Fuchs said in a statement.
Despite a veto threat, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in March to overturn the order. A similar bill has stalled in the Senate.