Overlooked: Navy's Fight To Use Sonar — Jul 3rd 2008
Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case of Winter v. NRDC
, a case ostensibly about the Navy's use of sonar during military training exercises, but in reality about the extent of President Bush's power in influencing court decisions. Backstory: Earlier this year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a previous ruling, which declared that in order to protect marine life such as dolphins and whales, the Navy must limit its use of sonar and abide by a "12-nautical-mile no-sonar zone" along the southern California coast. Additionally, the court ordered the Navy to end sonar use if a marine animal was detected within a 2,200-yard radius. In its ruling, the 9th Circuit Court rejected a previous attempt by the Bush administration to exempt Navy sonar from environmental laws.
But now the administration has taken its case to the highest court in the land. The San Jose Mercury News
offered a handy precis of the arguments: "Restricting the use of this sonar 'jeopardizes the Navy's ability to train sailors and Marines for wartime deployment during a time of ongoing hostilities,' Bush administration lawyers said in their appeal to the high court. But environmentalists... point to the dead whales that washed ashore in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands and Madeira Islands after the Navy conducted war games nearby. Some of them appeared to have died of hemorrhages in and around their ears, brains and lungs."
By the Navy's own estimate, 170,000 marine mammals have been affected by its sonar exercises over the last two years. The military branch still argues that the exercises are vital to training. But when the Supreme Court hears the case this fall, the justices will not weigh in on whether the dolphins and whales are being harmed. As the New York Times
point outs, the court is really considering "the balance of power between the executive branch and the courts in resolving such issues. In an effort to sidestep the courts, the Bush administration invoked national security to exempt the Navy from strict adherence to the two federal environmental laws that underlay the court decisions."
And the extent of the administration's power is one of the reasons that Propeller user TechnologyExpert was interested in the story. "It's another 'national security" ploy by the Bush administration to get their way," he wrote in an email. "Humans don't really care about any other organisms on this planet.... In this case, the evidence is strong that sonar harms whales. Yet, the attitude of most humans is, so what?"
Meanwhile, how will the judges will? Lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Los Angeles Times
that they "were not surprised by the court's willingness to hear the Navy's appeal but said they remained confident of winning. Richard B. Kendall, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented the NRDC, pointed out that the justices had recently rejected a similar claim from the administration that the military's need to hold 'enemy combatants' at Guantanamo Bay trumps the detainees' right to go to court."
But Technology Expert is less optimistic. "I don't expect a good result: the Supreme Court is conservative. But what gives us the right to decide the life and death of entire species? Our brains? We don't seem to use them well."