WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court gave the U.S. Navy and the Bush Administration a big victory today in its first opinion of the current Term. The majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts overturned lower court orders that forced the Navy to first halt some training exercises and then conduct them only under certain restrictions. The ruling however has limited practical effect as the Navy exercises at issue are set to end early next year.
The case highlighted the efforts of environmental groups to protect marine life particularly whales and dolphins it said are harmed by the Navy's use of "mid-frequency active" sonar. But the Court's opinion found in favor of the military. "The Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarine plainly outweighs the interest advanced by the [environmentalists]," Roberts wrote in the opinion joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito.
The opinion however made no determination on the merits of the environmental claims. Rather, it focused on the relief granted by the lower courts forcing the Navy to halt and then later continue its exercises under limited conditions. The High Court concluded the injunctions against the Navy were excessive and that according to Roberts "there are many other remedial tools available ... that do not carry such dire consequences."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fully dissented from the majority opinion and placing the onus on the Navy's failure to adequately assess the impact its sonar training would have on marine life. "If the Navy had completed the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before taking action...the public could have benefited from the environmental analysis — and the Navy's training could have proceeded without interruption. Instead, the Navy acted first, and thus thwarted the very purpose an EIS is intended to serve.... [T]he District Court conscientiously balanced the equities and did not abuse its discretion."
The majority determined the ultimate aim of the environmentalists was to get the Navy to conduct an EIS. As such they concluded, District Court Judge Florence Marie Cooper should have issued a less sweeping injunction relative to that point. Instead the injunction fully stopped the Navy's training exercises. "We do not discount the importance of plaintiff's ecological, scientific, and recreational interests in marine mammals," Roberts wrote. "Those interests, however, are plainly outweighed by the Navy's need to conduct realistic training exercises to ensure that it is able to neutralize the threat posed by enemy submarines."
Justice Stephen Breyer issued a split opinion in which he agreed with the majority's determination that the lower courts went too far. But he concluded that the more appropriate remedy would be to keep in place the amended decision from below that placed certain limits on when the Navy could operate its sonar systems. "In my view, the modified conditions imposed by the Court of Appeals in its February stay order reflect the best equitable conditions that can be created in the short time available before the exercises are complete and the EIS is ready. The Navy has been training under these conditions since February, so allowing them in place will, in effect, maintain what has become the status quo."
Reacting to today's ruling, a lawyer for the NRDC called it narrow in scope in noted how a decade's worth of litigation has led to a more environmentally-minded Navy. Navy Secretary Donald Winter said he was pleased with today's ruling adding "[w]e can now continue to train our Sailors effectively, under realistic combat conditions, and certify our crews combat ready while continuing to be good stewards of the marine environment."
The Navy's position was argued by Gregory Garre. It is his first victory — in the first case he argued — since being promoted to Solicitor General.