Friday, November 14, 2008

Back at Last

At long last, we shake off election fever and return to our regularly scheduled programming. (I know, I know, Al Franken is down by just 206 votes with a recount pending and you want to hear about it, but we're not covering election issues today!)

No, today it's back to good old law, particularly the latest Supreme Court opinion. You've probably heard that the Supreme Court ruled for the Navy in a dispute pitting environmental concerns against military preparedness. The Navy wants to conduct training in the use of active sonar to detect diesel-electric submarines, but there's some concern that the sonar would harm marine mammals. The district court hearing the case required the Navy to adopt various measures to mitigate the harm to marine mammals that its training exercises would cause.

The Supreme Court has now vacated the injunction. What's interesting about the case is the reason the Court chose to hang its opinion on. The Court doesn't disturb the district court's finding that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. Instead, the Court says that even assuming the plaintiffs will win on this claim, the district court erred in issuing injunctive relief in their favor. The Court reminds us that injunctive relief is an "extraordinary remedy," and that, before awarding it, a court is always supposed to balance the competing harms to the parties and to the public interest. Even if you show a violation of law, you never have an absolute right to injunctive relief.

Here, the Court said, the harm to the Navy's preparedness exercises, and to the public interest in military preparedness, outweighs the interest of the plaintiffs in avoiding harm to marine mammals. It's difficult to gauge the validity of the Court's holding without plunging deeply into the record, but the case is an interesting reminder that you face many obstacles if you actually want the law enforced. Even when you show a violation, you have to convince a court that enforcement is actually a good idea.

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