WASHINGTON (CN) - In its first decision of the term, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to lift restrictions on the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises off the California coast, saying the overall public interest tips "strongly in favor of the Navy." The ruling overturns a victory for environmentalists who demonstrated the harmful effect of sonar on marine mammals.
The dispute pits environmentalists' interest in protecting whales and other marine mammals against the Navy's need to adequately train its recruits to detect modern diesel-engine submarines.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said antisubmarine warfare is "one of the Navy's highest priorities."
However, environmental groups successfully sought an injunction placing restrictions on the Navy's use of mid-frequency active sonar during training exercises. More than 37 species of marine mammals are found in the biologically diverse waters off the coast of southern California. Nine of those species are listed as endangered or threatened, including the blue whale, fin whale and sea otter. Exposure to "very high" acoustic energy levels can impair marine mammals' sense of sight, balance, hearing and direction, and can injure their lungs, intestines and other internal organs.
The government argued that training missions are "essential to national security," and are therefore in the "paramount interest of the United States."
The district court entered a preliminary injunction against the Navy, which the 9th Circuit remanded as overbroad. The federal court's revised injunction imposed six restrictions on the use of sonar, requiring the Navy to reduce or shut down MFA sonar as marine mammals approached Navy vessels.
The Navy tried to circumvent these restrictions by striking a side deal with the Council on Environmental Quality, a division of the executive branch. The council allowed the Navy to continue its training exercises under voluntary mitigation procedures that reduced the radius of the shutdown zone from 2,200 yards to 200 yards.
The Navy then tried to vacate the injunctions, but the district court and the federal appeals court refused. The 9th Circuit said the record does not support the purported "emergency circumstances" exemption sought by the Bush administration. The three-judge panel added that the mitigation measures "will not likely compromise the Navy's ability to effectively train and certify its west-coast strike groups."
However, the Supreme Court majority concluded that the nation has a greater public interest in preparing the Navy for antisubmarine warfare than protecting marine life.
"The Court does not question the importance of plaintiffs' ecological, scientific, and recreational interests," Roberts wrote, "but it concludes that the balance of equities and consideration of the overall public interest tip strongly in favor of the Navy."
In dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Navy itself had speculated that the training exercises would likely harm marine mammals. "(T)his likely harm ... cannot be lightly dismissed," Ginsburg wrote, "even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy's 14 training exercises."
Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas joined the majority opinion.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.