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A federal appeals court has rejected the Obama Administration's attempt to keep secret the government's data on how much individual retailers take in from the food stamp program.

In a ruling Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit turned down the U.S. Department of Agriculture's arguments that a provision in federal law protecting retailers' application information from disclosure also barred disclosure of how much the feds pay out to specific businesses.

"Because the retailer spending information is not 'submit[ted]' by 'an applicant retail food store or wholesale food concern...' the information is not exempt from disclosure. The department, not any retailer, generates the information, and the underlying data is 'obtained' from third-party payment processors, not from individual retailers," Chief Judge William Jay Riley wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Steven Colloton and Jane Kelly.

The judges acted on an appeal filed by South Dakota's Argus Leader newspaper after the USDA turned down the paper's Freedom of Information Act request for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments to individual retailers on an annual basis from 2005 to 2010. A district court judge agreed with the federal government's argument that part of the food stamp program statute barred such disclosure, making the data exempt from FOIA.

Riley's nine-page opinion (posted here) reads the statute differently and also makes references to the public interest in disclosure of the information given both growth and fraud in the food stamp program.

The unanimous appeals court opinion calls the program "burgeoning" and "one of America's largest and fastest growing welfare arrangements."

"Between 2007 and 2011, spending 'more than doubled . . . from about $30 billion to $72 billion,'" Riley wrote, adding that "over fifteen percent of the population" received food stamp benefits in fiscal 2012. The judge also noted that USDA has found trading of food stamps for cash to be a significant problem, with about 10% of retailers reportedly engaging in such fraud.

"Congress has clearly indicated its intent to involve the public in counteracting fraud perpetrated by retailers participating in the program," Riley added. He and Colloton are appointees of President George W. Bush. Kelly is an appointee of President Barack Obama.

The appeals court panel did not explicitly order disclosure of the data the newspaper requested. It returned the case to the district court, which could find that some of the information sought by the newspaper is exempt on other grounds, such as invasion of privacy or disclosure of confidential business information.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department, which litigated the case on USDA's behalf, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. The government could ask the full bench of the 8th Circuit to rehear the case or seek review by the Supreme Court.

A reporter for the Argus Leader, Jonathan Ellis, welcomed the ruling. "I would hope that the USDA releases data that is clearly in the public interest. This was an important decision for transparency," Ellis said.

More on the two sides' arguments in the case can be found here.

(Aficionadoes of colorfully-named legal cases may enjoy Riley's reference to a 1951 Supreme Court case he cites for a holding on statutory construction: 62 Cases, More or Less, Each Containing Six Jars of Jam v. United States.)

UPDATE (Tuesday, 12:58 P.M.): This post has been updated with comment from Ellis, who is a reporter for the paper, not a lawyer as originally described.