Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Minor dispute over Navy's sonar use raises major questions

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday over whether the U.S. Navy must obey federal environmental laws offered a sometimes unpleasant look at what divides this country. Questions from liberal and conservative members of the court demonstrated the philosophical division that has paralyzed Congress and allowed the Bush administration to assume executive powers not anticipated by the U.S. Constitution. The case involves the question of whether a federal judge has the power to order the Navy to adhere to restrictions on the use of sonar off the southern California coast and whether President Bush can exempt the Navy from federal environmental laws, according to the Reuters international news service. Environmentalists had challenged the Navy's use of sonar during military training exercises near the coast, contending that it was damaging to whales and dolphins. The government appealed after a federal judge ordered the Navy to take precautions to limit possible harm to marine life. A federal appeals court upheld the judge's ruling after the president issued an order exempting the Navy from the environmental restrictions. At oral arguments, the court's four more-liberal members seemed to agree that the Navy should have studied the environmental impacts of using sonar. But the court's four-most conservative justices, including Chief Judge John Roberts, appeared to agree with the administration's contention that the courts should accept whatever the Navy, and Bush, have requested. Solicitor General Gregory Garre, the federal government's top courtroom lawyer, argued that the Navy's ability to use sonar to locate and track enemy submarines is "vitally important" and "critical to the nation's own security." A high court ruling is not expected until next year.

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