Youth plaintiffs in climate case against the U.S. government speak after a court hearing in September 2016. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

By Lynn Zinser

A group of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit advocacy group Our Children’s Trust, filed a suit in 2015 against the federal government claiming that the country is violating their constitutional rights by promoting a fossil fuel economy and endangering the climate for present and future generations The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, argued that the federal government has known for decades that fossil fuel burning is leading to dangerous changes in the Earth’s climate, yet has pursued policies to encourage fossil fuel development anyway.

The plaintiffs allege that the government is violating their rights to life, liberty and property, as well as the public trust doctrine, a legal doctrine that holds that the government owns a country’s shared natural and cultural resources and is obligated to preserve them for public use. The suit named President Obama and key officials in his administration. The case’s name is Juliana v. United States. Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana of Eugene, Ore., 18 when the case was filed, was the first listed plaintiff, so the title of the case bears her name.

The Obama administration has since been replaced by the Trump administration as defendants in the suit.

The complaint was filed on Aug. 12, 2015 and amended on Sept. 10 of that year. It has proceeded through the court system despite continued efforts by the defendants to dismiss. It is scheduled for trial to begin Feb. 8, 2018.

Here is a timeline of the case so far:

Aug. 12, 2015:  Youth file the lawsuit against President Obama and the U.S. federal government in U.S. District Court

Nov. 12, 2015: Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, three fossil fuel industry associations—the American Petroleum Institute (API), American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)  and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM)—requested to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of the U.S. government. Calling the suit a “direct threat to businesses,” the associations said: “Significant reduction in [greenhouse gas] emissions would cause a significant negative effect on [their] members by constraining the sale of the product they have specialized in developing and selling.”

Jan. 13, 2016: U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin allowed the associations to become named defendants in the case, but said the three associations must speak with “one voice” in the proceedings.

Mar. 9, 2016: The federal government and fossil fuel industry groups argued in a hearing for a motion to dismiss before Judge Coffin.

April 8, 2016: Judge Coffin issued a decision, denying the U.S. government and trade associations’ motions to dismiss the case.

September 2016: U.S. Judge Ann Aiken heard oral arguments on the defendants’ motions to dismiss, as part of her review of Judge Coffin’s decision.

Nov. 10, 2016: Just days after the U.S. elected Donald Trump as president, Judge Aiken issued a forceful ruling with wide-ranging repercussions. Aiken held in favor of the youth plaintiffs, upholding Judge Coffin’s earlier decision and denying the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case. In this historic decision, for the first time, Judge Aiken held that there is a constitutional right to a stable climate and that the question as to whether the U.S. government has violated that right, among others, would be determined at trial.

Aiken’s comments in her ruling also gave the youth plaintiffs’ case a boost of momentum, both moral and legal.

“Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it,” Aiken wrote. She quoted Judge Alfred T. Goodwin’s writing on the topic:

“The current state of affairs … reveals a wholesale failure of the legal system to protect humanity from the collapse of finite natural resources by the uncontrolled pursuit of short-term profits …. [T]he modern judiciary has enfeebled itself to the point that law enforcement can rarely be accomplished by taking environmental predators to court. … The third branch can, and should, take another long and careful look at the barriers to litigation created by modern doctrines of subject-matter jurisdiction and deference to the legislative and administrative branches of government.”

The ruling meant the case continues toward trial, sending it into the discovery phase, in which the plaintiffs can demand documents and other evidence from the government and the intervenors.

Dec. 15, 2016:  Trade group intervenors filed their reply to the plaintiff’s complaint, stating they “lack sufficient knowledge” to take a position or answer questions related to climate science.

Jan. 13, 2017: In its official answer to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the Obama administration admitted several key points central to the case, including that global warming is overwhelmingly driven by fossil fuel burning by humans and that the government has promoted fossil fuel development despite that knowledge. The government also stated that the plaintiffs had likely understated the severity of the problem by saying the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years.

These admissions are now the government’s official statement in the case and the incoming Trump administration would have to either offer proof that it is incorrect to retract it, or accept it as the government’s official position.   

Jan. 27, 2017: Upon inauguration of Donald Trump as president, plaintiffs add Trump as a defendant in the case, replacing former President Barack Obama.

Jan. 27, 2017: Judge Coffin ruled the plaintiffs can depose former Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson after his confirmation as secretary of state.

“We believe that Mr. Tillerson’s deposition will be extremely important to this case,” said Philip Gregory, counsel for the plaintiffs and a partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy. “The ties between the fossil fuel industry in the federal government run very deep and Mr. Tillerson will have much to add on this crucial issue.”

Also, plaintiffs request government preserve all information about climate change, much of which was being cleared from government websites upon Trump’s inauguration.

March 1, 2017: Youth plaintiffs requested documents relevant to the case from API, including those detailing its lobbying efforts to the federal government in an attempt to influence climate policy.

March 20, 2017: After the New York attorney general’s (AG) office disclosed that Tillerson used an alias email using the name “Wayne Tracker” for years while leading Exxon, youth plaintiffs filed a request for those emails as evidence in their suit. The New York AG claimed that Tillerson may have used the emails to discuss climate change and its impact on Exxon’s business and accused Exxon of withholding them in violation of the subpoena in the state’s climate fraud investigation.

March 24, 2017:  Plaintiffs requested trade group intervenors take a joint position on climate science. Judge Coffin subsequently set a May 25 deadline for submission.

May 1, 2017: Judge Coffin called the Trump administration request for an interlocutory appeal, a rare early appeal before a judgment has been rendered, “hen’s teeth rare” and recommended Judge Aiken deny it.

May 22, 2017: The National Manufacturers Association requested the court’s permission to withdraw from the litigation. NAM describes itself as the country’s largest trade association representing manufacturers. For more than 10 years, NAM participated in an effort to discredit the scientific consensus on climate change as part of the Global Climate Coalition, which also included API.

May 25, 2017: At the deadline for trade group intervenors to submit a joint position on climate science, API requested to withdraw from the case.

May 26, 2017: The AFPM also requested to withdraw from the case. None of the groups included a reason for their withdrawal in their motions, but had said in a recent case management hearing that the three groups could not agree on the causes and effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate.

“It seems pretty clear that the trade group intervenors have recognized that there may be costs as well as benefits to intervention and that they might be better off leaving the defense of the case to the government,” Seth Jaffe, an environmental lawyer who is a partner at Foley Hoag in Boston who is not involved in the case, told Reuters.

June 8, 2017: Judge Aiken followed Coffin’s recommendation to turn down the Trump administration request for an interlocutory appeal and sharply criticized its threat to seek a writ of mandamus from a higher court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. One day after Aiken’s ruling, the administration did seek that extraordinary measure from the Ninth Circuit.

June 28, 2017: Judge Coffin issued a decision, allowing the three fossil fuel trade associations to withdraw from the case. In granting their request, Coffin nonetheless chided their contention that they did not have enough knowledge to determine their stance on the science of climate change.

“Given that Intervenors are comprised of more than 15,000 members who are leaders of the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, as well as petroleum refiners and petrochemical manufacturers, and that their economic interests are impacted by this litigation, the court has no doubt that they have thoroughly studied the issue at the core of this case and are in a position to tender their own scientific evidence regarding climate change if they desire to challenge Plaintiffs’ evidence or the admissions of the United States,” Coffin wrote in his order.

Coffin also set a trial date of Feb. 5, 2018.

July 25, 2017: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a temporary stay of the case until it can decide on the Trump administration’s writ of mandamus request and other issues.

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