Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., No. 07–1239.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtChief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation555 U.S. 7,129 S.Ct. 365,77 USLW 4001,172 L.Ed.2d 249
Decision Date12 November 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07–1239.
PartiesDonald C. WINTER, Secretary of the Navy, et al., Petitioners, v. NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC., et al.

555 U.S. 7
129 S.Ct.
365
172 L.Ed.2d 249
77 USLW 4001

Donald C. WINTER, Secretary of the Navy, et al., Petitioners,
v.
NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL, INC., et al.

No. 07–1239.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Oct. 8, 2008.
Decided Nov. 12, 2008.




Syllabus*

Antisubmarine warfare is one of the Navy's highest priorities. The Navy's fleet faces a significant threat from modern diesel-electric submarines, which are extremely difficult to detect and track because they can operate almost silently. The most effective tool for identifying submerged diesel-electric submarines is active sonar, which emits pulses of sound underwater and then receives the acoustic waves that echo off the target. Active sonar is a complex technology, and sonar operators must undergo extensive training to become proficient in its use.

This case concerns the Navy's use of “mid-frequency active” (MFA) sonar during integrated training exercises in the waters off southern California (SOCAL). In these exercises, ships, submarines, and aircraft train together as members of a “strike group.” Due to the importance of antisubmarine warfare, a strike group may not be certified for deployment until it demonstrates proficiency in the use of active sonar to detect, track, and neutralize enemy submarines.

The SOCAL waters contain at least 37 species of marine mammals. The plaintiffs—groups and individuals devoted to the protection of marine mammals and ocean habitats—assert that MFA sonar causes serious injuries to these animals. The Navy disputes that claim, noting that MFA sonar training in SOCAL waters has been conducted for 40 years without a single documented sonar-related injury to any marine mammal. Plaintiffs sued the Navy, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that the training exercises violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and other federal laws; in particular, plaintiffs contend that the Navy should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) before conducting the latest round of SOCAL exercises.

The District Court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Navy from using MFA sonar during its training exercises. The Court of Appeals held that this injunction was overbroad and remanded to the District Court for a narrower remedy. The District Court then entered another preliminary injunction, imposing six restrictions on the Navy's use of sonar during its SOCAL training exercises. As relevant to this case, the injunction required the Navy to shut down MFA sonar when

[555 U.S. 8]

a marine mammal was spotted within 2,200 yards of a vessel, and to power down sonar by 6 decibels during conditions known as “ surface ducting.”

The Navy then sought relief from the Executive Branch. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) authorized the Navy to implement “alternative arrangements” to NEPA compliance in light of “emergency circumstances.” The CEQ allowed the Navy to continue its training exercises under voluntary mitigation procedures that the Navy had previously adopted.

The Navy moved to vacate the District Court's preliminary injunction in light of the CEQ's actions. The District Court refused to do so, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals held that there was a serious question whether the CEQ's interpretation of the “emergency circumstances” regulation was lawful, that plaintiffs had carried their burden of establishing a “possibility” of irreparable injury, and that the preliminary injunction was appropriate because the balance of hardships and consideration of the public interest favored the plaintiffs. The Court of Appeals emphasized that any negative impact of the injunction on the Navy's training exercises was “speculative,” and determined that (1) the 2,200–yard shutdown zone was unlikely to affect naval operations, because MFA sonar systems are often shut down during training exercises; and (2) the power-down requirement during surface ducting conditions was not unreasonable, because such conditions are rare and the Navy has previously certified strike groups not trained under these conditions.

Held: The preliminary injunction is vacated to the extent challenged by the Navy. The balance of equities and the public interest—which were barely addressed by the District Court—tip strongly in favor of the Navy. The Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines plainly outweighs the interests advanced by the plaintiffs. Pp. 374 – 382.

(a) The lower courts held that when a plaintiff demonstrates a strong likelihood of success on the merits, a preliminary injunction may be entered based only on a “possibility” of irreparable harm. The “possibility” standard is too lenient. This Court's frequently reiterated standard requires plaintiffs seeking preliminary relief to demonstrate that irreparable injury is likely in the absence of an injunction.

Even if plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable injury, such injury is outweighed by the public interest and the Navy's interest in effective, realistic training of its sailors. For the same reason, it is unnecessary to address the lower courts' holding that plaintiffs have established a likelihood of success on the merits. Pp. 374 – 377.

[555 U.S. 9]

(b) A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right. In each case, courts must balance the competing claims of injury and consider the effect of granting or withholding the requested relief, paying particular regard to the public consequences. Weinberger v. Romero–Barcelo, 456 U.S. 305, 312, 102 S.Ct. 1798, 72 L.Ed.2d 91. Military interests do not always trump other considerations, and the Court has not held that they do, but courts must give deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest. Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503, 507, 106 S.Ct. 1310, 89 L.Ed.2d 478.

Here, the record contains declarations from some of the Navy's most senior officers, all of whom underscored the threat posed by enemy submarines and the need for extensive sonar training to counter this threat. Those officers emphasized that realistic training cannot be accomplished under the two challenged restrictions imposed by the District Court—the 2,200–yard shutdown zone and the power-down requirement during surface ducting conditions. The use of MFA sonar under realistic conditions during training exercises is clearly of the utmost importance to the Navy and the Nation. The Court does not question the importance of plaintiffs' ecological, scientific, and recreational interests, but it concludes that the balance of equities and consideration of the overall public interest tip strongly in favor of the Navy. The determination of where the public interest lies in this case does not strike the Court as a close question. Pp. 376 – 378.

(c) The lower courts' justifications for entering the preliminary injunction are not persuasive. Pp. 377 – 381.

(1) The District Court did not give serious consideration to the balance of equities and the public interest. The Court of Appeals did consider these factors and conclude that the Navy's concerns about the preliminary injunction were “speculative.” But that is almost always the case when a plaintiff seeks injunctive relief to alter a defendant's conduct. The lower courts failed properly to defer to senior Navy officers' specific, predictive judgments about how the preliminary injunction would reduce the effectiveness of the Navy's SOCAL training exercises. Pp. 377 – 378.

(2) The District Court abused its discretion by requiring the Navy to shut down MFA sonar when a marine mammal is spotted within 2,200 yards of a sonar-emitting vessel. The Court of Appeals concluded that the zone would not be overly burdensome because marine mammal sightings during training exercises are relatively rare. But regardless of the frequency of such sightings, the injunction will increase the radius of the shutdown zone from 200 to 2,200 yards, which expands its surface area by a factor of over 100. Moreover, because training scenarios can take several days to develop, each additional shutdown can result in

[555 U.S. 10]

the loss of several days' worth of training. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the shutdown zone would not be overly burdensome because the Navy had shut down MFA sonar several times during prior exercises when marine mammals were spotted well beyond the Navy's self-imposed 200–yard zone. But the court ignored undisputed evidence that these voluntary shutdowns only occurred during tactically insignificant times. Pp. 378 – 380.

(3) The District Court also abused its discretion by requiring the Navy to power down MFA sonar by 6 decibels during significant surface ducting conditions. When surface ducting occurs, active sonar becomes more useful near the surface, but less effective at greater depths. Diesel-electric submariners are trained to take advantage of these distortions to avoid being detected by sonar. The Court of Appeals concluded that the power-down requirement was reasonable because surface ducting occurs relatively rarely, and the Navy has previously certified strike groups that did not train under such conditions. This reasoning is backwards. Given that surface ducting is both rare and unpredictable, it is especially important for the Navy to be able to train under these conditions when they occur. Pp. 380 – 381.

(4) The Navy has previously taken voluntary measures to address concerns about marine mammals, and has chosen not to challenge four other restrictions imposed by the District Court in this case. But that hardly means that other, more intrusive restrictions pose no threat to preparedness for war. The Court of Appeals noted that the Navy could return to the District Court to seek modification of the preliminary injunction if it actually resulted in an...

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1367 practice notes
  • Bimber's Delwood, Inc. v. James, 20-CV-1043S
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • October 21, 2020
    ...is in the public interest. See Yang v. Kosinski, 960 F.3d 119, 127 (2d Cir. 2020) (citing Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20, 129 S. Ct. 365, 172 L. Ed. 2d 249 (2008) and Friends of the E. Hampton Airport, Inc. v. Town of E. Hampton, 841 F.3d 133, 143 (2d Cir. 2016) ). B......
  • Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence v. Salazar, Civil Action No. 08-2243 (CKK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • March 19, 2009
    ...injunction has been circumscribed by the Supreme Court's decision in Winter v. Natural. Res. Def. Council, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 365, 172 L.Ed.2d 249 (2008). See Defs.' Opp'n at 11 n. 8. See also MSLF Opp'n at 3 (discussing the application of Winter). The Court disagrees. In Winter,......
  • Most Reverend David A. Zubik v. Sebelius, Nos. 13cv1459
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • November 21, 2013
    ...of an injunction”—the mere “possibility” of such irreparable harm “is too lenient.” Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22, 129 S.Ct. 365, 172 L.Ed.2d 249 (2008). “While the burden rests upon the moving party to make these [first] two requisite showings, the distr......
  • Florida v. Becerra, CASE NO. 8:21-cv-839-SDM-AAS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • June 18, 2021
    ...preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish by a "clear showing" each element of "standing." Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22 (2008). Confusion about standing is widespread. William Fletcher, The Structure of Standing, 98 YALE L.J. 221, 221 (1988) ("The structur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1361 cases
  • Bimber's Delwood, Inc. v. James, 20-CV-1043S
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court of Western District of New York
    • October 21, 2020
    ...is in the public interest. See Yang v. Kosinski, 960 F.3d 119, 127 (2d Cir. 2020) (citing Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20, 129 S. Ct. 365, 172 L. Ed. 2d 249 (2008) and Friends of the E. Hampton Airport, Inc. v. Town of E. Hampton, 841 F.3d 133, 143 (2d Cir. 2016) ). B......
  • Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence v. Salazar, Civil Action No. 08-2243 (CKK).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • March 19, 2009
    ...injunction has been circumscribed by the Supreme Court's decision in Winter v. Natural. Res. Def. Council, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 365, 172 L.Ed.2d 249 (2008). See Defs.' Opp'n at 11 n. 8. See also MSLF Opp'n at 3 (discussing the application of Winter). The Court disagrees. In Winter,......
  • Most Reverend David A. Zubik v. Sebelius, Nos. 13cv1459
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • November 21, 2013
    ...of an injunction”—the mere “possibility” of such irreparable harm “is too lenient.” Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22, 129 S.Ct. 365, 172 L.Ed.2d 249 (2008). “While the burden rests upon the moving party to make these [first] two requisite showings, the distr......
  • Florida v. Becerra, CASE NO. 8:21-cv-839-SDM-AAS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • June 18, 2021
    ...preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish by a "clear showing" each element of "standing." Winter v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22 (2008). Confusion about standing is widespread. William Fletcher, The Structure of Standing, 98 YALE L.J. 221, 221 (1988) ("The structur......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • An Empirical Look at Preliminary Injunctions in Challenges Under Environmental Protection Laws
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 47-5, May 2017
    • May 1, 2017
    ...for deciding whether to grant that relief, the uncertainty over whether a court might decide to issue an injunction can be paralyzing. 4. 555 U.S. 7, 39 ELR 20279 (2008). 5. See Sarah J. Morath, A Mild Winter: he Status of Environmental Preliminary Injunctions , 37 Seattle U. L. Rev. 155 (2......
  • NEPA's Trajectory: Our Waning Environmental Charter From Nixon to Trump?
    • United States
    • Environmental Law Reporter Nbr. 50-5, May 2020
    • May 1, 2020
    ...orders too often. Richard Epstein, he Many Sins of NEPA , 6 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 1, 12-20 (2018). 245. 561 U.S. 139, 40 ELR 20167 (2010). 246. 555 U.S. 7, 39 ELR 20279 (2008). 247. Monsanto Co. , 561 U.S. at 157. 248. Id . at 158. he Court added that permanent injunctions are “drastic and extra......

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