"The government has put me between a rock and a hard place," Judge Rudolph Contreras said at a hearing Tuesday, noting his displeasure over the State Department's explanations about the delays.
Contreras said he felt he was being forced to choose between accepting the State Department's proposed timeline without question, or else risk the accidental release of sensitive information by hurrying the process.
The State Department's proposed production schedule would result in all the remaining emails being released the day before "Super Tuesday" and after early contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
In the end, the judge ordered the State Department to provide detailed information about why the process is taking so long, and how the State Department temporarily lost track of thousands of pages of emails, leading to the current delay.
He also told the State Department to be ready to produce some subset of emails by February 18, "if not sooner," adding that he'd make that determination after reading their explanation.
When an attorney for the State Department told Contreras it would take over a week for emails that have already completed the inter-agency review process to be posted online, Contreras said, "that seems like an unreasonably long period of time."
The State Department has released about 85% of Clinton's official emails to date, but many of the most sensitive emails -- those that require addition review by the intelligence community and other government agencies -- are expected to be in the remaining tranche.
Five-hundred and seventy of the approximately 3,700 remaining documents have made it to the last couple stages of the review process, according to the State Department's attorney Robert Prince.
In a filing last month
, the State Department said it needed a one-month extension to release the final set of emails because approximately 7,000 pages of them had been misplaced for a period of several months before they could be sent to other government agencies to review.
That error, State argued, compounded by a weather-related government closure, meant they wouldn't be able to get the final batch of emails out by the original January 29 deadline.
Lawyers for journalist Jason Leopold, who is suing the State Department over the emails, argued the delay was unreasonable
and would "cause grave, incurable harm" to voters in early presidential primary states who are deciding whether to vote for Clinton without being "as fully informed as they would otherwise."
Contreras seemed to agree, saying the timing of the release was important for the reasons cited.
The judge also asked Prince whether the emails could be released to Leopold more expeditiously if they were not posted online, but the State Department argued it could take even longer to provide them to the plaintiff directly.
Contreras had ordered the State Department to stick to a monthly production schedule for the emails last Spring, rejecting the State Department's request to release all the emails at once in January.
The State Department had been progressing more or less on schedule until the discovery of the misplaced emails, which they've admitted was a mistake but have not explained in any detail.