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A New Frontier of Environmental Law: An Overview of Juliana v. United States

by Brian Conwell | Spring 2019

Four years ago, 21 young people sued the federal government for its contribution to climate change. The questions posed in this case largely haven't been discussed in previous jurisprudence. This is a groundbreaking case that will likely pose new questions in the field of environmental law.

1.  "Details of Proceedings." Our Children's Trust. Accessed March 26, 2019. https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/federal-proceedings.

4.  Powers, Melissa. "Juliana v United States: The next Frontier in US Climate Mitigation?" Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law27, no. 2 (2018): 199-204. doi:10.1111/reel.12248.

5.  Juliana v. United States

217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (D. Or. 2016)

7.  Ibid 5

Throughout American history, the judicial branch of government has taken pressing issues of our time and to the courts, where panels of judges steer history one opinion at a time. One can look at the examples of Brown v. Board of Education for segregation, Roe v. Wade for abortion, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission for campaign finance. These were cases that broke new ground in American constitutional jurisprudence. I argue that Juliana v. United States is wholly uncharted territory in environmental jurisprudence.

On August 12th, 2015 a group of 21 young people supported by the nonprofit organizations Our Children’s Trust and Earth Guardians filed a lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) challenging the constitutionality of the government’s contribution to climate change. The defendants are the President of the United States and many of the executive agencies, as well as three trade associations that together represent the largest fossil fuel companies. Many groups have filed amicus briefs in support of this small but impactful group of young people in their constitutional challenge, including prominent catholic groups and the League of Women Voters of the United States.[1] Plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez summed up their claim when he stated:

“The Federal Government has known for decades that CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change. It also knew that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize our climate system, significantly harming my generation and generations to come. Despite knowing these dangers, Defendants did nothing to prevent this harm. In fact, my Government increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to levels it knew were unsafe.”[2]

Soon after the suit was filed, the federal government filed a Motion to Dismiss, essentially claiming that climate change ought to be decided by the legislative and executive branches. In April of 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon rejected the Motion to Dismiss, allowing the case to proceed. In Judge Coffin’s decision, he states that the “intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government.” In other words, the elected branches of government failing to address the time-sensitive issue of climate change may not be constitutional. Federal Judge Ann Aiken of the United States District Court in November of 2016 upheld Judge Coffin’s rejection of the Motion to Dismiss.[3]

Since the rejection of these two motions, the Trump administration (now the plaintiff after the 2016 election) has filed a series of increasingly unusual procedural appeals which have all been denied with the case making its way to the  U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2018 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Juliana allowing the case to be tried.

The Juliana plaintiffs claim that the federal government’s contribution to fossil fuel development violate the Due Process Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and the Ninth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as the government’s public trust obligations. The Due Process Clause of the US Constitution states that no person shall, due to the federal government’s interference, “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process.”[4] In Judge Aiken’s decision on the case, she upholds the due process claim saying, "governmental action [was] affirmatively and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten human lifespans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically alter the planet's ecosystem."[5]

The counterargument to the due process claim is one that is expounded upon in the dissenting opinion of Obergefell v. Hodges, the famous gay marriage case that is based on a "antisubordination liberty" that protects "historically subordinated groups."[6] In the dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts criticizes the majority for creating a new due process right that was not there before. Judge Aiken used the majority opinion in the Obergefell case that “gave federal judges more discretion to establish new fundamental due process rights” and decided that this climate change claim violated the plaintiffs’ due process rights.[7]

Only time will tell the outcome of this case. However, what we know now is that it is uncharted territory. There has never been a direct federal challenge to climate change through the courts like there has been here. The outcome of this case may give us a new range of due process rights. It may even delve into the field of intergenerational justice, relevant because young people are more impacted by climate change than older people, since young people will be living through this changing environment. Either way, Juliana v. United States is on the frontiers of environmental law and will require the courts to decide on something they have never touched before. A decision on this matter eagerly awaits.

REFERENCES

 

[1] "Details of Proceedings." Our Children's Trust. Accessed March 26, 2019. https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/federal-proceedings.

[2] Ibid 1

[3] Ibid 1

[4] Powers, Melissa. "Juliana v United States: The next Frontier in US Climate Mitigation?" Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law27, no. 2 (2018): 199-204. doi:10.1111/reel.12248.

[5] Juliana v. United States

217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (D. Or. 2016)

[6] Bradford C. Mank, Does the Evolving Concept of Due Process in Obergefell Justify Judicial Regulation of Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change: Juliana v. United States, 52 U.C.D. L. Rev. 855 (2018)

[7] Ibid 5

2.  Ibid 1

3.  Ibid 1

6.  Bradford C. Mank, Does the Evolving Concept of Due Process in Obergefell Justify Judicial Regulation of Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change: Juliana v. United States, 52 U.C.D. L. Rev. 855 (2018)