Justice Amy Coney Barrett Finds No Merit In Sierra Club’s Claims

Justice Amy Coney Barrett issued her first majority opinion since her elevation to the Supreme Court in October. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Barrett held that the Sierra Club could not access the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ preliminary drafts of a final agency decision, reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Justice Barrett took the place of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon. Justice Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, less than two months before the presidential election. President Donald Trump quickly nominated then-Judge Barrett. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the nomination, resulting in Justice Barrett being sworn in on October 26, 2020, the same day she was confirmed by the Senate.

Before her elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Barrett served three years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Prior to serving as a judge, Justice Barrett served on the faculty at Notre Dame Law School. Her writings there, including her articles and lectures on constitutional law, catapulted her name onto President Trump’s shortlist of potential Supreme Court appointments.

Justice Barrett Prevents The Production of Documents To The Sierra Club

New justices normally receive lower profile cases for their first few opinions. This case, titled U.S. Wildlife and Fishery Services v. Sierra Club, Inc., focused on the Sierra Club’s request for drafts of final decisions of a Wildlife and Fishery Service rule the impact on endangered species of cooling water intake structures. In 2013 the agency prepared drafts concluding that the rule would cause harm to endangered species. In 2014, the agency issued a final decision concluding that the rule would not adversely impact endangered animals.

The Sierra Club requested the draft documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The government denied the request. The Sierra Club challenged the denial in court, resulting in a federal district judge in California ordering the production of eleven drafts. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reduced the number of documents to be produced to nine.

Justice Barrett concluded that because the documents were preliminary, they were protected from disclosure under the FOIA. Justice Barrett’s decision indicates that documents prepared by an agency as part of its deliberations during its decision-making process may be protected from disclosure. As the Sierra Club noted, the decision requires courts to review requested documents before determining if they meet the standard for disclosure under the FOIA.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of three liberal justices on the Supreme Court, joined Justice Barrett’s decision, as did the other five conservative justices. Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court’s other two liberal justices, dissented from the opinion. Justice Breyer believed that the drafts sought by the Sierra Club functioned more like a final decision than a true draft, which would require the production of the drafts.

Oral arguments in the case marked Justice Barrett’s first oral arguments as a Supreme Court Justice. Before issuing the opinion, Judge Barrett's only known vote was in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. There, Barrett joined a 5-4 majority upholding a preliminary injunction in favor of religious groups seeking to invalidate COVID restrictions imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The unsigned opinion stated that the restrictions likely violated the First Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts dissented on procedural grounds, meaning that Justice Barrett voted with the majority.

Justice Barrett’s Prevailed in a Tense Nomination Process

Justice Barrett’s confirmation resulted from a combative and tense process. Her conservative views and her devout Catholicism drew intense and sometimes bigoted opinions from her opponents. With Justice Barrett taking the place of one of the most reliable liberal justices in U.S. history, many feared that her appointment would imperil decades of work and significant decisions by liberal justices.

Liberals charged the Republican party, especially Majority Leader McConnell, with hypocrisy after McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland. Scalia died in February 2016, nearly eight months before the election. Still, McConnell quickly decided that the next president would appoint Justice Scalia’s replacement. President Trump eventually nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Scalia’s post.

McConnell dismissed the hypocrisy charges, pointing out that his position on both the Garland and Barrett nominations was consistent with Senate history. When a justice left office in an election year, nomination moved forward when the same party controlled the presidency and the Senate. When different parties held the presidency and the Senate, nominations did not move forward.

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