US Supreme Court turns down marine monuments challenge, for now

Published on
March 23, 2021

Conservationists earned a victory on Monday, 22 March, when the U.S. Supreme Court opted against taking a case that questioned the establishment of national marine monuments. However, Chief Justice John Roberts strongly hinted the court may welcome future challenges of a similar ilk.

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association had asked the nation’s top court to consider its case against the federal government and its use of the Antiquities Act to establish marine monuments, which then-President Barack Obama used to create the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016. While the court decided that the lobstermen’s case did not warrant consideration, Roberts took an unusual step in issuing a statement raising issues about the scope of the monuments.

Roberts said the law used to protect the marine areas was initially crafted to protect historic tribal ruins, with the proviso of protecting the smallest area necessary to care for the objects warranting protection. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument encompasses nearly 5,000 square miles of northern Atlantic Ocean waters.

“The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument at issue in this case demonstrates how far we have come from indigenous pottery," Roberts wrote.

Roberts said the court’s refusal to take on a case like this one should not be interpreted as it providing “an opinion on the merits” of the case.

“We may be presented with other and better opportunities to consider this issue without the artificial constraint of the pleadings in this case,” Roberts added.

The Natural Resources Defense Council issued a statement after the ruling noting that the commercial fishing industry has lost the cases it brought regarding the monument at every level of the federal judiciary system. Senior Attorney Kate Desormeau called on U.S. President Joe Biden to restore full protections to the Canyons and Seamounts by issuing a new proclamation, restoring protections stripped away by former President Donald Trump.

While Desormeau said Roberts’ statement raised questions about whether protected monuments might be subject to judicial review on their size even after they are created by the executive branch, Desormeau said in the case of the Canyons and Seamounts monument, its boundaries were determined through a thorough review process by the Obama administration.

“Presidents of both parties have long agreed that special ocean areas like this one can be protected as national monuments – and that means protection from extractive industry uses, like commercial fishing,” she said. “The fight to protect Northeast Canyons and Seamounts isn’t over with today’s decision. We are still in court with our partners challenging President Trump’s illegal move last year to open the marine monument up to commercial fishing.”

Issues regarding marine monuments has arisen again since the Biden administration took office two months ago. Earlier this month, representatives from the fishing industry met with federal officials and urged them to consider fishing interests when considering restrictions for the Canyons and Seamounts.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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