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Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett delivers first opinion in case involving records disclosure

  • March 04, 2021

Supreme Court ruled Thursday against an environmental group that sued the government for records about a proposed regulation’s potential impact on endangered species in the first major opinion by Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The Sierra Club sued the Trump administration in 2018, arguing the Freedom of Information Act required agencies to disclose the studies it conducted about the biological impact of an Environmental Protection Agency rule outlining how power plants and other industrial entities can draw water to cool machinery.

The case marked the first time Barrett took part in oral arguments, which had been set days after she joined the Supreme Court last fall. The former federal appeals court judge and law school professor was nominated to the court by President Donald Trump to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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At issue was whether the biological studies represented the final view of the agency, in which case they might normally be made available for public inspection, or whether they were a preliminary assessment agency officials could use to change their mind. The California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the draft documents could be made available, and the high court’s opinion Thursday reversed that decision. 

Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

“The deliberative process privilege protects the draft biological opinions at issue here because they reflect a preliminary view – not a final decision – about the likely effect of the EPA’s proposed rule on endangered species,” Barrett wrote. 

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented, saying they would have sent the case back to lower courts to review whether the documents at issue were really drafts or were closer to final form. 

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