Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch sided with Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan on Thursday in endorsing a narrow approach on how to enforce a 1986 law against computer hacking.
The judges overturned the conviction of a police officer, Nathan Van Buren, who had been paid to carry out a license plate search in violation of police department policy and, according to the federal government, the Law on computer fraud and abuse.
But Barrett, writing for the majority, said the officer technically did not have access to information to which he was not entitled. Instead, he simply abused his access to the information he was allowed to see. Therefore, the court said, the agent did not violate federal law.
“This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas of the computer – such as files, folders or databases – to which their computer access does not extend,” Barrett wrote in the opinion. majority. “This does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have inappropriate motives for obtaining information which is otherwise available to them.”
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The distribution of the votes pitted the three Trump-appointed judges and the court’s three Liberals against the three most senior Republican-appointed judges: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The case centers on a narrow question of statutory interpretation rather than the broad constitutional questions that drive much of the heated debate around the Supreme Court. Therefore, he is unlikely to reveal much about the judges’ potential rulings or approach in other important cases on religious freedom, guns, abortion and more.
But the distribution of votes – which comes after the court has given five consecutive unanimous opinions in recent weeks – further underscores that the court doesn’t always rule simply on ideological lines as many Democrats calling President Biden allege to pack the court. Some have speculated that several unanimous opinions in a row could be a message to pro-court liberals that the court does not necessarily rule solely on ideological lines.
Indeed, because Roberts was in dissent in this case, the majority opinion was attributed to Barrett by Breyer, the senior majority judge. Breyer, one of the court’s liberals, recently warned Democrats that wrapping up the court could undermine its legitimacy. The comments prompted many on the left to double calls for his retirement.
Reading the government … would criminalize everything from beautifying an online dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook
On the merits of the case itself, Barrett and the majority warned that the government’s broad reading that a person cannot use a computer could have the accidental effect of criminalizing millions of Americans for things they do everyday.
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“[T]The government’s interpretation of the law would attach criminal penalties to a mind-boggling amount of routine computer activity, ”Barrett wrote. “If the ‘exceeds authorized access’ clause criminalizes every violation of a computer usage policy, then millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens are criminals.”
“[O]In government reading of the law, an employee who sends a personal email or reads the news using their work computer has violated the CFAA, “Barrett continued. Government reading of the law , she added, “would criminalize everything from embellishing an online dating profile to using a pseudonym on Facebook.”
The case was the first time Barrett and Thomas have voted differently on a case since Barrett joined the bench last year. In dissent, Thomas wrote that “Barrett’s interpretation is contrary to the ordinary meaning of the text.”
“The question here is simple: Would an ordinary English-speaking reader understand that Van Buren has’ passed[ed] allowed access to the database when using it under expressly prohibited circumstances? “said Thomas. was absent.”
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“A valet, for example, can take possession of a person’s car to park it, but he cannot take it for a ride,” Thomas said.
The case is also notable in that Barrett, the youngest judge at 49, wrote an opinion on what is yet another problem with federal laws struggling to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology in society. When the court ruled last year that companies could file generic URLs in a victory for Booking.com, the opinion was drafted by the late judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was 87.
Since then, Breyer has written the majority opinion in a decision supporting Google in a copyright dispute over whether Google’s use of Oracle code in the development of its Android smartphones was “use loyal ”. Breyer is 82 years old.
The court will face another major tech-related case this quarter: a dispute over whether a high school was justified in firing a cheerleader on its team for a layman post on Snapchat about the team it was doing. she created when she was not on school grounds.
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The case could have major ramifications for how schools balance student voice rights with anti-cyberbullying efforts. And that will be decided by a panel of judges whose median age is 66.
Fox News’ Bill Mears and Shannon Bream contributed to this report.
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