Plaintiffs in the landmark youth climate case vs. the U.S. governmentThe youth climate case vs. the U.S. government, in which 10-year-old Levi Draheim is one of the plaintiffs, will proceed with discovery. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

By Karen Savage

A federal judge refused to halt the discovery process in the landmark lawsuit filed by 21 young plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change by supporting an energy system reliant on fossil fuels.

In a sharply worded order, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Coffin rebuked the request by the government for a protective order and stay of discovery. Coffin said the “court is not at all persuaded” by the defendants’ arguments.

“The defendants’ motion for a protective order and stay is simply a recasting of their position that the plaintiffs’ claims should all be dismissed and the District Court should revisit its previous ruling to the contrary,” Coffin wrote in his ruling last week, adding that the case should proceed through discovery and a trial before further review is warranted.

The case, Juliana v. United States, was originally filed in August 2015 by young plaintiffs from across the country and became the first in which a U.S. court has recognized the constitutional right to a safe climate. It is scheduled for trial on Oct. 29 in Eugene, Ore.

The young plaintiffs allege that by encouraging and promoting fossil fuel development, the federal government contributes to climate change, is violating the public trust doctrine and is denying them their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. They are asking the court to order the U.S. government to create a science-based plan to stabilize and protect the climate for future generations.

The federal government has tried repeatedly to have the case dismissed, including filing a writ of mandamus request that was denied by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in March.

In the government’s most recent attempt to sidetrack the case, Justice Department attorneys  invoked the separation of powers doctrine to argue discovery should be stayed because it could reveal privileged information. It also cited the Administrative Procedure Act, which limits discovery in hearings involving regulatory violations and other administrative technicalities.  

Coffin was unpersuaded. “Under such rationale, the government could avoid all discovery in any litigation in which it is named as a defendant simply by asserting hypothetical discovery requests that a litigant might make during the litigation,” Coffin wrote, adding that if specific claims of privilege arise, the government can file motions directed specifically at that information.

“While the federal defendants file motions to stop these youth from securing their constitutional rights, our team has been preparing for trial and we will be ready,” said Julia Olson, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, which is supporting the case.

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