by: Bick Law LLP
In early March, the Ninth Circuit rejected a writ of mandamus from the U.S. government that would quash a case filed by 21 young environmental activists. Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court of Oregon scheduled the case to be tried in October of this year. The case, Juliana v. United States, case no. 6:15-cv-01517, involves allegations that the federal government violated both the plaintiffs’ and younger generations’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by supporting and authorizing fossil fuel development in spite of the inherent risks to both human health and the environment.
The complaint was filed in August 2015 and has gathered a good deal of media attention due to the unusual nature of the case and the claims presented (the case even has its own hashtag: #youthvgov). The plaintiffs consist of 21 youth activists from an organization named Earth Guardians who receive pro-bono legal support from the non-profit organizations Our Children’s Trust and Wild Earth Advocates. In addition to the fact that the case was filed by a group of motivated minors, it is also notable due to the nature of the claims: the plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that the U.S. government has been aware of the potentially devastating impacts of climate change and, despite this knowledge, has continued to subsidize and encourage fossil fuel productions at the expense of the constitutional rights of its citizens.
Shortly after the complaint was filed, the U.S. government filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that “Plaintiffs lack a federal cause of action, and they do not and cannot plead the required elements of a valid federal cause of action” and that “no court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ claim as Plaintiffs’ suit raises non-justiciable political questions and Plaintiffs lack standing.” In late 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied the motion to dismiss, finding that the Public Trust Doctrine calls for a strong and independent judiciary to protect the environment and “the state has a fiduciary duty to its citizens to ensure that future citizens have the right to enjoy the benefits from the trust, and that those trust rights both predated the Constitution and are secured by it.” Judge Aiken also noted, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
In response, the U.S. government in June 2017 filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals, asking that the court order the district court to either dismiss the case or to stay the case in district court until the merits of the petition could be assessed. In March, the Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s petition, stating, “the issues that the defendants raise on mandamus are better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation.” The court went on the assert that while some of the plaintiffs’ claims are too broad to be remedied effectively by a court, the merit of these claims should be decided first in district court. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit noted that approving the government’s petition could create a slippery slope and overwhelm the Ninth Circuit with requests for appellate review.
The Ninth Circuit’s denial of the U.S. government’s writ petition allows this case to go to trial, which was recently scheduled by the District Court of Oregon for October 2018 and will be heard by Judge Aiken.
The district court case is Juliana v. United States, case no. 6:15-cv-01517, in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.
The Environmental Attorneys at Bick Law LLP will continue to monitor developments in climate related suits around the country.