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Supreme Court Split Over Navy’s Sonar Training Case

October 9, 2008

The Supreme Court was split on Wednesday over whether President George W. Bush can excuse the Navy from federal environmental laws. This case pits the safety of whales against the Navy’s military exercises.

This is the most important environmental case of the current term.  The court is evaluating a verdict that required the Navy to take a range of safety measures in order to reduce potential harm to whales and dolphins.

The four liberal justices voiced apprehension over the administration’s decision not to submit an environmental impact account prior to sonar training exercises that were performed off the coast of California.

Environmentalists state that the powerful sound waves produced in sonar training can hurt or even destroy endangered whales. The waves could even hinder the marine mammals’ dive patterns.

Throughout the debates, the conservative justices thought that the judges in the case should have listened and accommodated the decisions of the Navy and Bush, and let the submarine-hunting exercises continue.

Following a judge’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction imposing a number of limits on the Navy, Bush stepped in. He noted that the national security obligations of the exercises should exempt the Navy from the ecological regulations at the center of the legal dispute.

A U.S. appeals court denied the White House’s attempt to excuse the Navy from the laws, prompting the administration to petition the Supreme Court.

Solicitor General Gregory Garre, the administration’s principal courtroom attorney, made a statement to the justices about the Navy’s capability to use sonar to find and follow enemy submarines is “vitally important” and “critical to the nation’s own security.”

Liberal Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg inquired why the administration intended to finish an environmental impact report in January 2008, instead of doing it in February of 2007 when the exercises started.

“To the extent that there was an emergency, wasn’t the emergency created by the failure of the Navy to take any timely action?” Souter asked Garre.

Justice John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer also had related concerns.

Los Angeles lawyer Richard Kendall defended the environmentalists that raised the dispute, but came across a sequence of hard-hitting questions from conservative justices.

Justice Samuel Alito asked whether or not there was any proof that marine mammals would be harmed by the sonar waves, and mentioned that it “incredibly odd” that a solitary judge could formulate a decision disagreeing with the Navy.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared troubled that the judge had not appropriately investigated the damage to marine mammals considering the “substantial challenge” forced on the Navy.

Justice Anthony Kennedy queried whether the judge in the case ought to have given superior influence to the administration’s position that the training was essential to national defense.

Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the government’s preliminary environmental appraisal that the endangered whales would not be injured should have been adequate.

A new decision in the case is anticipated early next year.




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