Screw the whales, says SCOTUS

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled this week that the Navy can continue to conduct training exercises using high-powered sonar, despite fears that the technology can harm marine mammals. The Court ruled by six votes to three that the training exercises, currently underway 12 miles off the Californian coast, served a pressing public interest. “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals that they study and observe,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. "In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet."

The ruling is a disappointment, of course, and bad news for the 8,000 whales that the National Resources Defense Council estimates will be temporarily deafened by the tests, along with the 500 whales that it estimates will be permanently injured or killed. But while the decision is a victory for the Bush administration, which has been fighting for the Navy’s right to carry out the tests, it was in fact a relatively narrow ruling; whether the tests continue in the long run will depend not on this week’s decision, but rather on whether or not the Obama administration green-lights further training sessions.

The real problem with this week’s ruling, then, is less its direct environmental impact than its broader implications. In finding for the Navy, the Court essentially backed the military’s right to ignore its statutory environmental obligations when national security is at stake - and ruled that military officials and the White House should be allowed to decide for themselves when that’s the case. “The president - the commander in chief - has determined that the training with active sonar is ‘essential to the national security,’” Roberts wrote. “We give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest.”

That sounds reasonable in principle - after all, nobody wants to put whales’ well-being ahead of the safety of American troops. But the fact of the matter is that the US military has been trying for years to win exemptions from environmental rules, despite failing to uncover a single instance in which environmental obligations had interfered with military preparedness. In the face of the Pentagon’s ongoing efforts to duck its environmental obligations, judicial deference is the last thing we need.

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