Kelsey Juliana is one of two plaintiffs suing the state of Oregon to protect the climate for future generations. Photo credit: Robin Loznak

By Karen Savage

More than 175 individuals and groups have filed amicus briefs in support of the young people suing the state of Oregon to force it to take science-based action to stabilize the climate and to protect public trust resources from the effects of climate change.

The amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs were submitted to the Oregon Supreme Court on Tuesday by law professors and elected officials, as well as by public health, youth, communities of color, faith, business, conservation, government and education groups. They signify widespread support for the case, Chernaik v. Brown, which has been dismissed several times by lower courts but was accepted for appeal by the state’s Supreme Court in May. Oral arguments are scheduled for November.

The 15 elected officials who signed the brief said Oregon’s courts are a big reason the state has a strong history of environmental protection. 

“The judiciary must continue in its role as an independent interpreter of the law, correct the erroneous decision by the Court of Appeals, and make clear that the State of Oregon has a fiduciary obligation to protect Oregon’s public trust resources,” the elected officials wrote in their brief. The 15 who signed include state Sen. Floyd Prozanski. 

“These young Oregonians are fighting for a livable future for all of us, and I am grateful they are helping lead the climate movement,” Prozanski said.

In the suit, plaintiffs Ollie Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana allege that the state has failed to protect the atmosphere, water resources, navigable waters, submerged and submersible lands, islands, shorelands, coastal areas, wildlife and fish from the effects of climate change.

Chernaik and Brown are asking for those resources to be designated as public trust resources that must be protected and are asking the state to implement a plan to cut its carbon dioxide emissions in order to help stabilize the global climate.

The state argued that the suit contained political questions over which the court did not have jurisdiction, contending that climate change-related matters should be left to the legislative and executive branches. Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten Rasmussen agreed and dismissed the case in 2012.

Chernaik and Juliana appealed and the Oregon Court of Appeals in 2014 reversed Rasmussen’s decision. The Appeals court said the trial court must decide whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource that the state of Oregon has a duty to protect and if so, what the state must do to protect it and other resources from the effects of climate change.

The case was remanded back to the Lane County Circuit Court, where Rasmussen again dismissed it, ruling in 2015 that the state has no responsibility to protect its beaches, shorelands, islands, fish, wildlife or atmosphere for future generations. 

He said they are not public trust resources and questioned “whether the atmosphere is a ‘natural resource’ at all.” Rasmussen determined that submerged and submersible lands were part of the public trust, but ruled that the state’s only duty is to not sell them.

The court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s dismissal in January 2019, setting up a final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Dozens of groups and individuals have signed briefs in support of the plaintiffs.

In addition to the most recent submissions, briefs have been previously submitted by Multnomah County, the Eugene/Springfield NAACP, the Center for Sustainable Economy, Oregon Universalist Voices for Justice, Partners for Sustainable Schools, Beyond Toxics and other organizations and individuals.

“Today I am humbled by the act of courage taken by these groups in recognizing the threat of climate change and choosing to act on this crisis that disproportionately affects young people and future generations,” said Juliana, a 23-year-old from Eugene who is also a plaintiff in the landmark federal climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Michael Blumm, professor of law at Lewis and Clark Law School was one of 107 law professors who signed a brief in support of the case.

“We believe that the state’s public trust doctrine does not allow the state to ‘sleepwalk’ into a climate disaster through its reckless inaction, and that the Court of Appeals ruling that the state has no obligation to protect trust resources like waterways, ocean waters, fish and wildlife, and the atmosphere from greenhouse gas pollution was in error and should be reversed,” Blumm said.

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