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Barrett Makes Supreme Court Debut in Environmental Documents Case

Nov. 2, 2020, 5:00 PM

Justice Amy Coney Barrett made her Supreme Court debut Monday, less than a week after being sworn in as the newest member of the court.

“It gives me great pleasure on behalf of myself and my colleagues to welcome Justice Barrett to the court,” Chief Justice John Roberts said at the start of the day’s arguments that were conducted via phone.

Barrett heard her first case that tests when federal agencies may withhold documents from the public. Barrett seemed inclined in United States Fish and Wildlife Serv. v. Sierra Club, Inc. to side with the government, which would allow officials to withhold documents relating to Obama-era environmental regulations.

Barrett didn’t participate in recent election orders, saying she didn’t have time to get up to speed and that time was of the essence. She similarly skipped the court’s private conference Oct. 30, at which the justices considered whether to add cases to its docket.

Barrett didn’t participate in the conference so she could prepare for oral arguments, Supreme Court spokeswomen Kathleen L. Arberg said in an email Monday.

That’s not unusual for justices who join the court after a term has started.

Arguments are the first opportunity for court watchers to see how active the new member will be on the high court bench and how their style could change the dynamics of oral arguments.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch were active questioners from the get go, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh took a backseat during his debut.

But the coronavirus has forced the Supreme Court to take arguments remotely, changing the dynamics of oral argument. In particular, instead of the free-for-all style the justices typically use inside the courtroom, the justices are taking turns asking questions in order of seniority.

Barrett jumped right in on her first day, asking questions of both government attorney Matthew Guarnieri and Sanjay Narayan, who represented the Sierra Club.

Of Guarnieri, Barrett explored various ways the government could win. With Narayan, she was skeptical of his arguments seeking to get the government to hand over the environmental documents.

Barrett’s debut comes one day before the U.S. presidential election, the outcome of which President Donald Trump has suggested may come down to the Supreme Court itself. But inside the virtual courtroom, it was business as usual.

The two cases argued Nov. 2 were relatively low-profile. The second case was a statutory interpretation dispute involving retirement benefits for railroad workers.

The justices will hear higher profile cases immediately following the election. A Nov. 4 argument deals with tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights and the court will take up constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, on Nov. 10.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at; John Crawley at