Supreme Court Denies Fed Stay in Children's Climate Change Lawsuit

In an order passed down July 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied yet another Federal Government delaying action in a landmark case pitting a group of teenagers against the government for its role in helping the fossil fuel industry create the climate crisis.

With this latest ruling being at the highest level possible, it is unlikely there will be another major delay in the court proceedings -- for now at least.

Almost three years ago two climate advocacy organizations and a group of children sued the U.S. government for its role in supporting the fossil fuel industry and allowing the horrors of climate change to happen. On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court told the Federal Government it was going to have to see this case through to its conclusion.

The case is unusual in climate change circles. It is also one of the oldest to demand action for allowing fossil fuel emissions to grow. Known by the formal name of Juliana v. U.S.A., 15-cv-01517, it was filed in Federal court in Eugene, Oregon, by 21 youth plaintiffs between the ages of 11 and 22 years old. Two other advocacy groups, Our Children’s Trust and Earth Guardians, joined in the lawsuit.

What makes this case unique is that, as a press release from the two advocacy groups said, it alleges the federal government affirmatively “create[ed] a national energy system that causes climate change, is depriving [the plaintiffs] of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property and [fails] to protect essential public trust resources.” Instead of going after the fossil fuel companies themselves, the suit demands the government stop making matters worse and do something to help all Americans for the future to come.

The latest decision comes rapidly after a previous July 20 ruling regarding the case in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision, which resulted from a Trump administration allegation that the lower court did not have proper justification for having allowed the case to proceed, said the previous court’s actions were fully justified legally. The Fed’s escalation to the Supreme Court was an attempt to force a stay of the entire case and block any further prosecution in the matter.

What Trump’s group may be most afraid of is the whole issue of having to address the reality of climate change in a courtroom, while simultaneously continuing to unravel previous Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on fossil fuel emissions and reckless expansion of the fossil fuel industry. They will likely not get away with ignoring the reality of climate change in a legal battle. Worse for them still is that it will be relatively easy to argue that the current administration has intentionally opened up the carbon dioxide and methane “floodgates” of emissions, making the current Federal Government even more responsible than ever before for what is happening to the environment.

In the current ruling passed down from the Supreme Court on July 30, the document was brief but clear. It said:

“The application for stay presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is denied.

“The Government’s request for relief is premature and is denied without prejudice. The breadth of respondents’ claims is striking, however, and the justiciability of those claims presents substantial grounds for difference of opinion. The District Court should take these concerns into account in assessing the burdens of discovery and trial, as well as the desirability of a prompt ruling on the Government’s pending dispositive motions.”

In those few words, two items are important to note. First is the phrase about “the breadth of respondents’ claims is striking”, suggesting the court sees this as an important and far-reaching case. Second is about the “desirability of a prompt ruling” on the Government’s still-pending motions. Although the case will likely go forward in a major way, it appears there is the possibility that the Government could still win out on having certain parts of the case set aside.

In comments released right after the Supreme Court decision:

Kiran O., a 21-year-old plaintiff from Seattle, WA, said: “As a young person working in the gardening business, climate change is all around me and looming all the more ominously in my future. The government’s actions are a case of constitutional infringement, and it is the court’s job to hear such cases—the defendants’ argument that this is not within the court’s jurisdiction would only make sense if they were defending citizens’ rights, not violating them. Juliana vs. U.S. is calling for checks and balances, not disturbing the separation of powers. We have been stalled with nonsense long enough!”

Victoria B., a 19-year-old plaintiff from White Plains, NY, said: “The constitutional rights of my fellow plaintiffs and I are at stake in this case, and I am glad that the Supreme Court of the United States agrees that those rights should be evaluated at trial. This lawsuit becomes more urgent every day as climate change increasingly harms us. I have reaffirmed confidence now that all levels of the federal judiciary have ruled in our favor that there should be no more delay in getting to our trial.”

Jacob L., a 21-year-old plaintiff from Roseburg, OR, said: “I am so grateful that the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of this trial and allowed our case to proceed. The scientific evidence linking the U.S. government's actions and policies to climate change impacts like wildfire and droughts that harm us youth must be presented before our country's justice system in its entirety to ensure that our rights may be protected.”

Philip Gregory, of Gregory Law Group and co-counsel for the Youth Plaintiffs, commented about the case: “We are thankful that the Supreme Court recognized the importance of moving this case forward. We are on the last stages of discovery and preparing for trial. We believe that the district court will promptly address narrowing the claims so that the trial can go forward on October 29, 2018 in Eugene.” 

For now, barring other surprises, the case is moving to discovery and preparation for the start of the court proceedings in just under three months from now.