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Case of sonar's effects on whales heads to high court

At issue: Can a judge enforce environmental rules at the expense of national defense training?

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The US Supreme Court announced on Monday it would examine whether a federal judge acted properly in ordering the US Navy to alter its sonar training procedures to protect whales and dolphins off the California coast.

At issue is whether the judge – and a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the judge's ruling – overstepped their authority by enforcing environmental regulations at the expense of national defense training in wartime.

US environmental regulations are "not a suicide pact," the Bush administration argued in its brief urging the high court to take up the case. The case, Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, will be heard in the high court's next term, which begins in October.

President Bush, the Navy, and the Council on Environmental Quality all concluded as a matter of national security that the sonar training should be permitted to continue without environmental restrictions.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed. "While we are mindful of the importance of protecting national security, courts have often held in the face of assertions of potential harm to military readiness, that the armed forces must take precautionary measures to comply with the law during its training," Circuit Judge Betty Binns Fletcher wrote in a Feb. 29 decision. "The district court here carefully balanced the significant interests and hardships at stake to ensure that the Navy could continue to train without causing undue harm to the environment."


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