They haven’t even had a full court hearing yet, but the 21 youth behind a climate justice case against the United States government are already racking up an impressive record of wins before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Friday, both benches rejected the Trump administration’s latest attempt to kill the landmark case before it could go to trial.
“The youth of our nation won an important decision today from the Supreme Court that shows even the most powerful government in the world must follow the rules and process of litigation in our democracy,” said Julia Olson, co-counsel for the youth and executive director of Our Children’s Trust. As soon as the court decision landed, the youth filed a District Court request for an immediate case conference to get the case back on track.
Juliana v. United States was previously scheduled for a hearing October 29, after multiple government delays dating back to the term of President Barack Obama. The plaintiffs had bought their train tickets to Eugene, Oregon, where Judge Ann Aiken was to hear arguments. Then Washington tried one more time to cancel the trial before it could start.
Initially, Chief Justice John Roberts “granted a request two weeks ago by the Trump administration to stay discovery and trial pending review of its latest petition to the Supreme Court for writ of mandamus—a rarely used extraordinary appeal that asks a higher court to overrule a lower court before a trial has concluded,” Climate Liability News reports.
But “after the plaintiffs filed their response, Roberts referred the matter to the full court, which issued Friday’s ruling. Only justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the government’s request to stop the trial, far short of the majority needed.” The Ninth Circuit ruled Friday, as well.
On the day the trial was to begin, Climate Liability News took a closer look at the “uncharted territory” Juliana has already opened up for climate litigation, and why successive U.S. administrations have fought so hard to block the case.
“The plaintiffs, who come from communities around the country already dealing with debilitating effects of climate change, allege that the federal government is violating their Constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by promoting a fossil fuel-based energy system that exacerbates climate change,” wrote reporter Karen Savage. “Their suit, filed in 2015, successfully convinced a U.S. District Court judge to order the case to trial,” and had survived every attempt to quash it.
“Why the government appears so frantic to avoid the trial has been an overriding, and unanswered, question,” Savage added. “But part of the reason could be that the case puts the government in an uncomfortable legal position. Much of the evidence used by the young people to prove they are being harmed by climate change comes from the government itself.”
Even the Trump administration’s recent motion to exclude expert testimony in the case admitted that climate change is causing “polar ice melt, earlier annual snow melt, reduced snowpack, sea level rise, sea temperature increases, threats to coastal cities, adverse impacts to coral reefs and the life they support, more powerful storms and hurricanes, wildfires, drought, floods, and a variety of other impacts.”
With the government acknowledging the reality of climate change so much clearly in court than it does in everyday life, “what’s tricky for the Juliana plaintiffs is not the facts, it’s the law—is there actually a claim you can bring that the United States has this essentially fiduciary or trust obligation to future generations to protect the planet,” said Ann Carlson co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA law school.
“That’s the fundamental argument of the plaintiffs, and whether that has a basis in the Constitution is a tricky question.”
Lawsuits against the U.S. government usually focus on technical regulations and interpretation of statutes. “In this case, the evidence the plaintiffs are seeking to put on trial is much more dramatic, and the plaintiffs are much more sympathetic than is typical,” Carlson said. “You have 21 kids, they’re kids who are from areas that are already being affected by climate change, you have world-renowned scientists who are going to have an opportunity to testify about what is happening with climate change and why it’s so serious, and we don’t usually see that kind of evidence put on.”
Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said that unique narrative will likely help the plaintiffs at trial. Their case is “that this government—and its various departments and agencies—has long known about the extraordinary risks that climate change poses both to individuals living today and to future generations,” he told CLN. “[It] has fundamentally failed to take adequate actions to address those harms, and has in fact made affirmative decisions that have made the problem worse. And the law provides a means to constrain government and to force action. I think that’s a very powerful narrative.”