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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Key Endangered Species Act FOIA Case

HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson

Foia.govOn Monday, March 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to a petition from two U.S. federal agencies attempting to block the release of certain agency decision-making documents under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  The agencies’ petition followed a determination by the Ninth Circuit that certain “draft” documents created by the agencies pursuant to Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) were not exempt from public release under FOIA.  The Supreme Court’s resolution of the matter is expected to have far reaching impacts on the types of documents that federal agencies may hold back from public release under FOIA.

The case stems from an April 2011 regulatory proposal by U.S. EPA to modify standards related to certain “cooling water intake structures,” used by power plants and manufacturing facilities to dissipate heat.  Under Section 7 of the ESA, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”) and National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) were required to provide U.S. EPA their “biological opinions” as to whether the regulatory proposal was “likely to cause jeopardy” for certain ESA-listed species or negatively impact critical habitat of threatened or endangered species.  Pursuant to this obligation, the USFWS and NMFS advised U.S. EPA of their preliminary determination that the proposed regulations would harm currently endangered species.  However, the agencies’ preliminary determinations were never published, and following further discussions with U.S. EPA, the agencies ultimately modified their conclusion and announced a finding that the proposed regulations would pose no “no jeopardy” to endangered species.  Following this determination, the Sierra Club subsequently issued a FOIA request for documents related to the ESA consultation process, but the agencies refused to turn over documents related to their draft preliminary determination.  Specifically, the agencies claimed that the documents were protected under the “deliberate process privilege” exception to the FOIA.  Following several years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit held in 2018 that the deliberate process privilege did not extend to block the draft documents created by the USFWS and NMFS and that the agencies were required to turn over the documents to the Sierra Club.

In its petition, the Government urged that the Ninth Circuit’s rulings must be overturned in order to protect the deliberate process privilege of FOIA, which is essential for “promoting a candid exchange within and between agencies before a final decision is made.” In its brief in response to the Government, the Sierra Club argued that the documents “conveyed the Services’ conclusion that a particular action proposed by…EPA would result in jeopardy to species protected by the ESA,” and that the agencies’ attempt to subsequently identify these documents as “drafts” did alter the conclusive nature of the documents.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Government’s petition is likely an ominous indicator for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups supporting the Ninth Circuit’s holding.  Since 2007, the Supreme Court has overturned approximately 70% of the federal circuit decisions it agrees to review, and has overturned more than 77% of the decisions arriving from the Ninth Circuit.