Youth Climate Lawsuit Against Federal Government Headed for Trial

E360 DIGEST

JUNE 2, 2023 (e360.yale.edu)

Plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States.
Plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States. ROBIN LOZNAK

A federal judge has ruled that a high-profile climate lawsuit, brought by a group of Oregon youth against the U.S. government, can finally go to trial.

“These young people have a right to access their courts and, after several long years, finally have their evidence of climate harm caused by their own government — and how to stop it — heard in open court,” Julia Olson, attorney for the youth plaintiffs, said in a statement.

In 2015, 21 children between the ages of eight and 18 filed suit against the U.S. government, asserting that, by propelling climate change, the nation’s leaders had violated young people’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and property.

In 2018, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts halted the case, known as Juliana v. United States, shortly before it was set to go to trial. And in 2020, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, ruling that the judiciary does not have the power to enact climate policy, as sought by the plaintiffs. Only the legislative and executive branches can craft such policy, the court said.

In response, the plaintiffs asked to amend their suit, pushing not for a change in policy, but instead for a ruling declaring that the nation’s fossil-fuel-based energy system is unconstitutional. In seeking a declaratory judgment, the suit takes the same approach deployed in Brown v. Board of Education, where plaintiffs pressed the Supreme Court to declare segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken allowed the plaintiffs in the climate suit to amend their complaint, clearing the way for the case to go to trial. In her decision she wrote, “It is a foundational doctrine that when government conduct catastrophically harms American citizens, the judiciary is constitutionally required to perform its independent role and determine whether the challenged conduct, not exclusively committed to any branch by the Constitution, is unconstitutional.”

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