Court Dismisses Landmark Youth Climate Lawsuit Against U.S. Government

by | Jan 17, 2020

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the landmark youth-led climate lawsuit against the United States government on Friday, ruling that the young plaintiffs did not have standing to sue.

While the ruling was a victory for the Trump administration, which fought bitterly to have the case, Juliana v. United States, dismissed, the court also wrote that the young plaintiffs “have made a compelling case that action is needed.” 

But the court held that climate change policies cannot be addressed through the judicial branch of government.

“Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government,” Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote in the panel’s two-judge majority opinion.

“​Despite finding the government was actively contributing to climate change, and despite the fact the court found these youth plaintiffs submitted evidence of concrete and particularized injuries, and despite the fact that the youth plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to show federal policies were a substantial factor in causing plaintiffs’ constitutional injuries, a majority of the panel concluded there was nothing federal courts could do to address these constitutional violations,” said Philip Gregory, one of the lead attorneys representing the young people, in a statement.

The 21 children and youth, who hail from across the country, first filed their lawsuit in 2015. They charged that by encouraging and promoting fossil fuel development despite knowing its destructive effects on the climate, the federal government was contributing to global warming, violating the public trust doctrine, and denying their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. They asked the court to demand that the federal government produce a science-backed program to reduce carbon emissions and protect the climate for future generations.

When District Court Judge Ann Aiken sent the case to trial by in 2016, it became the first case in which a U.S. court recognized a constitutional right to a safe climate.

But the majority of the 9th Circuit three-judge panel disagreed, stating that it was beyond the court’s power to “design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan where any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches.”

In her dissenting opinion, Judge Josephine L. Staton decried the inaction of both the federal government and her judicial colleagues.

“In these proceedings, the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response—yet presses ahead toward calamity. It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses,” Staton wrote.

“Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation. My colleagues throw up their hands, concluding that this case presents nothing fit for the Judiciary.”

Attorneys for the 21 youth say they intend to appeal the case’s dismissal to the 9th Circuit’s entire bench. A majority of the court’s 29 judges will have to agree to hear the appeal, which would then be considered by a panel of 11 judges.

Juliana v. U.S. survived numerous previous attempts by both the Obama and Trump administrations to have it dismissed.

While dismissing the case on legal grounds, the two-judge majority wrote that the evidence presented left no doubt that by promoting a system based on fossil fuels, the U.S. government’s “contribution to climate change is not simply a result of inaction.”

In the ruling, Judge Hurwitz referred to the popular mid-1960s protest song that warned the U.S. was “on the eve of destruction.”   

“The plaintiffs in this case have presented compelling evidence that climate change has brought that eve nearer,” Hurwitz wrote. “A substantial evidentiary record documents that the federal government has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change, and that failure to change existing policy may hasten an environmental apocalypse.”

Juliana has been likened to previous Supreme Court cases, including the Brown v. Board of Education and Brown v. Plata decisions, which reversed long-standing legal positions on fundamental rights.

Judge Staton drew that comparison in her dissent, acknowledging that “unless there is a constitutional violation, courts should allow the democratic and political processes to perform their functions.” But she also said the injustice of climate change is very different from other social injustices that can eventually be corrected.  

“Plaintiffs’ claims are based on science, specifically, an impending point of no return,” Staton wrote.  “If plaintiffs’ fears, backed by the government’s own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly. When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?”

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Karen Savage is an investigative journalist who has reported on climate change-related itigation, environmental justice, policing, and other social justice issues. Her work has appeared in Climate Docket, Undark Magazine, In These Times, Project Earth, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Truthout, City Limits, and more. Karen is an alum of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she won the Sidney Hillman Award for Social Justice Reporting.