In a five to four decision, the United States Supreme Court has reversed a U.S. District Court decision that would have limited the United States Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar in training operations. Evidence suggests that marine mammals are negatively impacted by this technology. The original suit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) asserted that the Navy was in violation of several environmental laws.

In January, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled for the NRDC and issued an injunction limiting the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar. Following the District Court ruling, President Bush and the white House Council for Environmental Quality sought to exempt the Navy from the injunction. Following this, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper and then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the exemption; prompting the Administration to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Authoring the Court's majority decision were Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David H. Souter authored the dissenting opinion. Chief Justice Roberts quoted a 1986 Court decision that asserts the Court must "give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities" in making decisions that affect them. Justice Roberts stated that for the NRDC "the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of marine mammals that they study and observe" while "forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet."

Justice Ginsburg countered, writing that "Sonar is linked to mass strandings of marine mammals, hemorrhaging around the brain and ears" and "lesions in vital organs."

Commenting on the decision, Chris Parsons, a George Mason University professor who has been involved with marine mammal issues, stated, "The worrying aspect of this is that in the worst-case scenario, the military has the power to invoke national security concerns and thereby trump any environmental judicial concerns." Parsons further stated, "One hopes that the Navy will take their often quoted policy of being 'stewards of the marine environment' seriously and be restrained in invoking military necessity when faced with environmental issues."

 


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