- The Washington Times - Monday, November 2, 2020

Justice Amy Coney Barrett heard oral arguments Monday in her first case on the Supreme Court but had to do it virtually.

The debut of the newly minted justice lacked the grandeur of her taking a seat at the imposing wing-shaped mahogany bench or hearing her first question echo across the stately courtroom.

Instead, the gravity of the moment fell upon a conference call that complied with the high court’s social distance protocols for coronavirus.

“Before we commence the business of the court this morning, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Barrett to the court,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. before they got down to business. “Justice Barrett, we wish you a long and happy career in our common calling.”

Her first case involved the Sierra Club, an environmental group, challenging a denial of access to government records.

Justice Barrett quizzed the government lawyer about what factors a court should examine to determine whether an agency labeled a document in a way to escape disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

“You said that if a government official simply stamps ‘draft’ on it and sent it over and, as Justice [Brett M.] Kavanaugh is positing, did so to avoid FOIA disclosure requirements, you said that a court might look at other factors to determine whether it’s still final. What other factors would a court consider?” she asked.

The hour-long oral arguments came after the Sierra Club requested documents about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed 2011 regulations on factories and plants taking in water from lakes and rivers to cool machinery.

The EPA moved to regulate the design and operation of the water intake structures since they could cause harm to aquatic life under the Clean Water Act. The agency consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries about the impact of the regulations as part of the Endangered Species Act.

The Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain the opinions issued from the other agencies on the impact of the proposed rule.

A lower court sided against the federal government, which withheld some of the records based on claims that they were part of a pre-decisional process and not final adopted documents by the EPA.

After granting the government’s appeal, the high court is deciding whether those documents can be exempt from FOIA rules.

A decision in the case will be issued by the end of June when the justices are expected to wrap up the court’s 2020 term.

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