Barrett, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh side with liberal Supreme Court justices in computer fraud case

Barrett warned government reading of law could ‘criminalize’ conduct like ’embellishing an online-dating profile.’

Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch sided with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan Thursday to endorse a narrow approach on how to apply a 1986 law against computer hacking. 

The justices overturned the conviction of a police officer, Nathan Van Buren, who was paid to run a license plate search in violation of the police department’s policy and, according to the federal government, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But Barrett, writing for the majority, said the officer technically did not access information he wasn’t entitled to. Instead, he simply misused his access to information he was authorized to see. Therefore, the court said, the officer did not violate federal law.

“This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer – such as files, folders or databases – to which their computer access does not extend,” Barrett wrote in the majority opinion. “It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them.” 

The vote breakdown pitted the three Trump-appointed justices and the court’s three liberals against the three more senior Republican-appointed justices: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. 

The case is focused on a narrow issue of statutory interpretation rather than the broad constitutional issues that animate much of the hot-button debate around the Supreme Court. Therefore, it is not likely to reveal much about the justices’ potential rulings or approach to other major cases on freedom of religion, guns, abortion and more.

But the vote breakdown – which comes after the court issued five consecutive unanimous opinions in recent weeks – further underscores that the court does not always rule simply on ideological lines as many Democrats calling on President Biden to pack the court allege. Some have speculated the several unanimous opinions in a row could be a message to pro-court-packing liberals that the court does not necessarily rule only on ideological lines. 

Indeed, because Roberts was in the dissent on this case, the majority opinion was assigned to Barrett by Breyer, the most senior justice in the majority. Breyer, one of the court’s liberals, recently cautioned Democrats that packing the court might harm its legitimacy. These comments caused many on the left to double-down on calls for him to retire.