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Court rules for Navy in sonar use

The Supreme Court, dividing 6-3, upheld the Navy’s power to use sonar in military training exercises, even though environmentalists claim that the technology threatens marine life in the training zone off the Pacific Coast.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., wrote for the majority; there were two full dissents and one partial dissent.   The decision, the Court’s first ruling of the Term, came in the case of Winter (Navy Secretary) v. National Resources Defense Council, et al. (07-1239).

The Court partially overturned a federal judge’s order against the use of the active sonar at least until the Navy took additional measures to mitigate the threat to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.  Those added measures would have required the Navy to stop or reduce its sonar exercises when the threat to mammals was deemed imminent.  The ruling set aside the District Court injunction to the extent challenged by the Navy. There were six clear votes for that outcome. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, while agreeing that the conditions should not have been imposed, voted alone to keep intact relaxed versions of the two conditions that the Navy had challenged until further review by the Navy of the impact on marine life.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice David H. Souter, dissented in full. Justice John Paul Stevens supported the result — wiping out the two conditions — but did not join the Chief Justice’s majority opinion, which was joined specifically by four others.

Roberts wrote that “the Navy’s need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs” the environmental concerns raised by advocacy groups. “We do not discount the importance of [the challengers’] ecological, scientific, and recreational interest in marine mammals,” the opinion remarked.

It added: “Of course, military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do.  In this case, however, the proper determination of where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question.”

The Court had heard argument in the case on Oct. 8, and moved comparatively rapidly to prepare the opinions because the specific round of sonar exercises the Navy is conducting are to be finished by January, at the latest.  The Court’s ruling did not decide the underlying legal issue: whether the Navy was obliged to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. However, the Navy is in the process of doing so, anyway.