U.S. Court of Appeals Rules Children's Climate Change Lawsuit Can Go to Trial

A lawsuit filed mostly by a group of teenagers against the U.S. Federal Government for a failure to protect them against the effects of fossil fuel emissions and climate change can finally proceed to trial. The ruling came down from the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco on March 7.

The decision involved the Juliana v. U.S.A., 15-cv-01517, litigation, originally filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon in 2015.

In that case most of the plaintiffs were teenagers at the time of the filing. It asserted that because of specific affirmative actions by the U.S. government, actions spanning over a half century including continuing to support the growth of the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. government had with full knowledge passed legislation and taken other steps which were directly responsible for worsening climate change. Those actions also ended up with the U.S. producing an estimated 25% of the world’s carbon emissions.  The lawsuit further asserted that because of those actions, the children’s constitutional rights “to life, liberty and property” were violated and that the government failed to protect essential public trust resources.

After the case already withstood one attempt by the Obama Administration to have the case dismissed in 2016, it was proceeding for trial at increasing speed. The Trump Administration, led by a President who had once referred to climate change as a hoax, filed for a writ of a U.S. government petition for a “writ of mandamus” in the case. Trump’s legal team’s argument then was that the federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, which had previously refused to dismiss the case in November 2016, had exceeded her authority as a judge. They said this involved policy matters which the President and the Congress have full authority to handle, and for which the judge had no authority.

This step resulted in the case going to the U.S. District Court of Appeals in San Francisco to respond to the latest attempt to have the case thrown out.

The plaintiffs in the case responded to court requests regarding the writ of mandamus on August 28, 2016. Eight amicus briefs were also filed with the court in support of the youth plaintiffs.

The San Francisco U.S. Court of Appeals which heard that appeal decided against the Trump Administration. In the three-judge panel’s unanimous decision released on March 7, the Court said the issues the Trump Administration was concerned about were “better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation”.

Julia Olsen, the lead attorney representing the children’s group in the case, said the decision means there is a full “green light for trial”. She said in a statement she would ask for a trial date in 2018 “where we will put the federal government’s dangerous energy system and climate policies on trial for infringing the constitutional rights of young people”.

Besides the trial date, there are two other major issues which will need to be addressed in the case soon.

One involves whether or not certain government officials can now be questioned in depositions for the case. One of those officials whose testimony the children most wanted to hear from is Rex Tillerson, now U.S. Secretary of State but also formerly the chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation, plus the head of a major petroleum industry trade group. When the first deposition request was issued to Tillerson earlier in the case, that request was denied since he was in the middle of being confirmed for his new role in the Trump administration.

A second question is whether or not Trump and the U.S. Justice Department may want to escalate the “writ of mandamus” decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So far there has been no comment from the U.S. Justice Department regarding the U.S. Court of Appeals’ latest ruling.