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Court Finds Primarily for the Plaintiffs but Holds That U.S. Government Cannot Stop Climate Change

Toni Larson  | Published on 1/17/2019
On January 17, 2020, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “reluctantly” concluded that the youth plaintiffs’ case in Juliana v. United States must be made to the Congress, the President, or to the electorate at large. The decision finds federal courts cannot provide the youth with a remedy for their climate change injuries. Read more here.

In her dissent, District Judge Josephine L. Staton wrote that the youth plaintiffs brought suit to enforce the most basic structural principal embedded in our system of liberty: the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction. Judge Staton would hold that the youth plaintiffs have standing to challenge the government’s conduct, have articulated claims under the Constitution, and have presented sufficient evidence to press those claims at trial. Counsel for the youth plaintiffs vowed to ask the full Ninth Circuit to review the determination that federal courts can do nothing to address an admitted constitutional violation.

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust and co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, commented: “The Juliana case is far from over."

Juliana v. United States was brought by Our Children's Trust. The 21 youth plaintiffs are alleging that the government is violating their constitutional rights by promoting the development and use of fossil fuels, despite knowing for decades that fossil fuels are destroying the climate system. 

The case so far . . .
In September 2019 the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg  joined seven of the Juliana plaintiffs (including Kelsey Juliana and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez from Boulder) and members of the U.S. Congress held a press conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court steps. The youth called upon people from around the world to join them in the Global Climate Strike on September 20, 2019.

Back in March 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs' landmark case can move forward.  
In a unanimous ruling, Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas denied the Trump administration’s motion to dismiss the case under a rarely used procedure called a writ of mandamus, in which a case essentially leapfrogs over the usual legal venues. Judge Thomas wrote that a “writ of mandamus is a drastic and extraordinary remedy reserved for really extraordinary cases” and that the Trump administration’s motion failed to meet that standard. The issues raised by the case “are better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation,” the chief judge wrote, pointing out that the case hasn’t even reached the discovery stage yet. 

  During a public case management conference on April 12th, 2018, the U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin set October 29, 2018, as the trial date for Juliana v. United States. 
That trial was expected begin at the United States District Court in Oregon on Monday, October 29.

   But then in late October, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued a temporary stay of the case to consider a request from the Justice Department for a stay to halt the case. The Supreme Court’s temporary stay sent the plaintiffs scrambling to put together a brief in time to keep the case moving forward on schedule.

   On November 2nd, 2018, the court denied the government’s request for a stay, though Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the application, according to the court order. The Supreme Court also suggested that a federal appeals court should consider appeals on other grounds before the case heads to trial in district court. Details and lawyers' discussion are available here.

In early March 2019, the “Young People’s Brief,” signed by 30,000 youth, became one of 15 new amicus briefs filed by environmentalists, religious and women’s groups, business leaders and eight members of Congress– all in support of the case being tried in court. Read more here.

At the June 4, 2019, hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, on the interlocutory appeal and the preliminary injunction Julia Olson argued on behalf of the youth plaintiffs and Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark argued on behalf of the federal government before Judges Mary H. Murguia and Andrew D. Hurwitz of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Josephine L. Staton of District Court for the Central District of California. Read more here.