WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett authored her first opinion Thursday to a case heard by the high court in November.
The 7-2 decision handed a defeat to an environmental group seeking access to government documents. Barrett wrote for the court that certain draft documents do not have to be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), limiting the scope of U.S. agency documents that would be subject to the act.
FOIA has been a key legal tool in ensuring government transparency. Since 1967, it has provided the public and journalists access to records from any federal agency except for requests that fall under one of nine exemptions— the breadth of these each of these exemptions has been tested and litigated in the courts.
In the case, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vs. Sierra Club, the question before the court was whether interagency draft documents are protected under FOIA’s deliberative process privilege exemption.
The documents in question examined biological jeopardy opinions from experts on aquatic wildlife that could potentially get trapped in “cooling water intake structures” used to cool industrial equipment by power plants and other industrial facilities.
The opinions were required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and required consultation with other agencies as to whether proposed environmental regulation for the cooling structures would adversely affect endangered species, including fish, turtles and shellfish.
In 2013, the agency initially found that the regulation would put the species in jeopardy but the opinion was shelved after the agency extended the consultation period. Its final recommendation to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 reached the opposite conclusion.
The Sierra Club and the organization’s allies sought the original, shelved draft documents.
Writing for the court, Barrett said the 2013 draft documents were protected from disclosure because “they reflect a preliminary view – not a final decision – about the likely effect of the EPA’s proposed rule on endangered species.”
A federal judge in California ruled in 2017 that 11 documents had to be disclosed. Trump’s administration appealed and the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled partly for the government but still found that nine documents had to be released.
Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.