Whales may simply have to pay the price as the Navy prepares for war, Supreme Court justices suggested Wednesday.
In a closely watched environmental case, justices on Wednesday repeatedly sounded sympathetic to Pentagon officials who want to run large-scale Navy exercises off the Southern California coast. While the resulting underwater sonar storm disturbs marine mammals, it also helps prepare sailors for combat.
“I thought the whole point of the armed forces was to hurt the environment,” Justice Stephen Breyer said, half-jokingly.
The Pentagon and environmentalists disagree over exactly how much midfrequency active sonar injures marine mammals, and justices Wednesday couldn't resolve the conflict. An apparent majority of justices, though, did appear ready to defer to military expertise in matters of national security.
Chief Justice John Roberts raised the specter of an undetected North Korean diesel submarine getting close to Pearl Harbor if sailors couldn't train with sonar, and Justice Samuel Alito asked if a judge could be considered “an expert on anti-submarine warfare.”
The legal question in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council is when a federal agency can sidestep conventional environmental protections by declaring an emergency. A Pentagon victory could make such emergency declarations more common, and on more than just military matters.