A federal court judge Tuesday morning ordered the State Department to devise a schedule for releasing Hillary Clinton's emails on a rolling basis, rejecting a proposal the department made hours earlier to release all 55,000 pages on January 15, 2016.
US District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras also ordered the State Department to set an exact date for releasing 296 emails about the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Those records were turned over to Republican lawmakers late last year and are the subject of a congressional investigation into the incident. Government lawyers said in court Tuesday morning that they expected these emails to be released within days or weeks.
Contreras set a May 26 deadline for the State Department to propose a new schedule for completing its review of Clinton's emails. He issued his order in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by VICE News last January, seeking Clinton's emails and a wide range of other documents related to her tenure as secretary of state.
According to the judicial order, the State Department "shall file a notice to the Court on or before May 26, 2015, that includes the following: (1) a new production schedule for the Secretary Clinton e-mails that accounts for rolling production and updates from counsel every 60 days, (2) a proposed deadline for production of the Secretary Clinton e-mails relating to Benghazi, and (3) a proposed order that encapsulates the parties' agreement on the narrowing of [VICE News'] request concerning searches for [documents] beyond the Secretary Clinton e-mails."
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said at a press briefing Tuesday the department will not challenge the judge's order.
"Of course, we take our legal obligations seriously; we'll comply with the order," Rathke said.
Media reports have widely suggested that Clinton's decision to use private email was an attempt to thwart FOIA requests.
Ryan James, an attorney who represents VICE News in the FOIA lawsuit, opposed the State Department's January 15, 2016 proposed schedule for releasing the emails. James proposed that the emails VICE News is seeking be released periodically as they are reviewed beginning July 1.
In court documents filed Monday night with the US District Court in Washington, DC, the State Department said that it planned to release all of the emails at once on a website dedicated exclusively to the electronic communications after they have all been internally reviewed.
In a 13-page declaration, John Hackett, the State Department's FOIA chief, said that the "intensive," time-consuming task of reviewing the electronic communications would not be completed until the end of the year.
"The collection is ... voluminous and, due to the breadth of topics, the nature of the communications, and the interests of several agencies, presents several challenges," Hackett wrote.
The declaration includes previously undisclosed details about the State Department's work on the Clinton emails. Hackett noted that Clinton turned over the emails to the State Department in "paper form in twelve bankers' boxes" last December.
He said that the Clinton email "project" is staffed with a "project manager and two case analysts as well as nine FOIA reviewers who devote the entirety of their time at the State Department to this effort, plus other analysts and information technology specialists who provide collateral assistance to this review in addition to their regular duties."
"The team managing this project has met daily since early April to implement and oversee this large undertaking," Hackett added.
The review of the emails requires the Clinton project team to hand-process and scan all 55,000 pages "to ensure that all information is being captured in the scanning process," according to Hackett. This involves steps "that are time consuming and labor intensive," he said.
"It took the Department five weeks to perform the scanning process, which was completed recently in May," Hackett said. "There will be further work required to load these into a searchable database, which will be completed by mid-June." The scanning process was complicated was complicated by the fact "that some, but not all, of the paper records that the Department received [from Clinton] were double-sided."
Before publicly releasing the emails, the State Department needs to consult with "a broad range of subject matter experts within the department and other agencies as well as potentially foreign governments."
"These records are comprised of communications to or from the former Secretary of State, who was responsible for the overall direction and supervision of the full range of activities of the Department, which operates in approximately 285 locations around the globe," Hackett said.
Clinton's use of personal email to conduct official business during her four years as secretary of state was first revealed by the New York Times last March_,_ and has since snowballed into a potentially epic scandal. Media reports have widely suggested that Clinton's decision to use private email was an attempt to thwart FOIA requests. Under federal law, Clinton's work-related emails should be considered government records and preserved on the State Department's servers in accordance with the Federal Records Act so that journalists, historians, and the public can access them.
During Clinton's time as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, the State Department received at least a half-dozen FOIA requests for her emails covering various issues. But Clinton operated a private server out of her home, and her emails were not accessible to the FOIA analysts tasked with processing the requests. The State Department has failed to produce any records responsive to the requests, some of which dated back five years.
_Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: _@JasonLeopold