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Whether an Article II court can pass an order requiring the government to develop a plan to regulate fossil fuel emissions

Meenakshi Nair ,
  25 May 2020       Share Bookmark

Court :
United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Brief :
This climate change lawsuit could have been a potential landmark Law Suit, provided the plaintiffs won. The initial ruling by Judge Aken, considering a person’s access to a ‘climate system capable of sustain human life’ as a constitutional right was progressive and first of its kind. As per the district court the case met all the requirements and allowed to case to proceed on merits. The ruling of the federal court manifests the limits of the courts’ willingness to assign legal responsibility to the government for the harms caused by greenhouse gases. As the plaintiffs have not claimed the governments violation of a particular state or regulation or do not seek for damages and thus is of a nature that cannot be redressed in a federal court. Besides on the basis of standing, the court concluded that issues of this nature had to brought up before political branches or at the electorate at large, thus dismissing the case. Hurwitz expressed that the relief sought by the plaintiffs was beyond “the constitutional power of the courts” and would infringe the doctrine of separation of powers. It is surely a blow to environmental activists.
Citation :
Juliana, et al v. United States of America, et al[1] (January 17, 2020)

CORAM: Mary H. Murguia and Andrew D. Hurwitz, Circuit Judges; Josephine L. Staton, District Judge [United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit]

Brief Facts:

This is an Environmental law – atmospheric trust litigation (concept based on public trust doctrine and international responsibility related to natural resources), wherein a bunch of youth from various states in the United States sued the United Sates for America for violation of their constitutional rights, which was a result of the inaction of the government to tackle climate change.

PARTIES TO THE SUIT:

Petitioners: Kelsey Rose Juliana along with 21 youth plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust, Earth Guardians (and NGO) and Future Generations (through their guardian Dr. James Hansen)

DefendantsUnited States of America(and other federal agencies), Office of the president of the United Nations (Obama Govt. as well as Trump Govt) and fossil fuel industries (including The American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufactures, the National Associations of Manufacturesetc.)

ISSUE:

  • Whether an Article II court can pass an order requiring the government to develop a plan to regulate fossil fuel emissions.

Principal Laws: Public Trust Doctrine (9th Amendment); Due Process (5th Amendment); Equal Protection (5th Amendment)

ARGUMENTS RAISED:

Petitioners contention:

  • The suit by the petitioners was based on the allegation that, the United States Government violated the plaintiffs’ rights by encouraging and allowing activities relating to greenhouse gas emissions that significantly infringed upon their right to life, liberty and property and a right under Due Process Clause[2] to a “climate system capable of sustaining life” . All the petitioners could demonstrate material injury due to climate change, for ex: desertification, psychological harm, medical issues etc. Theyargued that the government failed its obligation to protect the nation’s air, water, forest and coast lines.They asked the court to compel the government to end fossil- fuel subsidies and adopt policies that would reduce greenhouse emissions.
  • They presented fifty years of evidences that the governments knew that burning fossil fuels was catastrophic to the environment, yet they affirmatively promoted the same through tax benefits, subsidies and permits. They sought remedial declaration and injunctive relief.

Defendants Contention:

  • The government did not dispute that such burning of fossil fuel was dangerous, and that climate change was a national security threat.
  • The defendants (both the Obama and Trump Governments) constantly tried to dismiss or stay the proceedings of the case by filing a Writ of Mandamus[3] which was dismissed. The U.S Department of Justice Argued that there was “no constitutional right to a pollution-free environment” and that the court system was not the proper venue to affect such changes. Further, they argue that the plaintiffs have not accused any of the defending parties to have exceed statutory authority, instead have accused a collective government action for the violation of the constitutional rights, which cannot be claimed under the statue.[4]Thus they contended that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing.

Decision:

A three- judge panel in the U.S Ninth Circuit of Appeals rules 2-1 to dismiss Juliana v. United States of America.

CONCLUSION/ ANALYSIS:

This climate change lawsuit could have been a potential landmark Law Suit, provided the plaintiffs won. The initial ruling by Judge Aken, considering a person’s access to a ‘climate system capable of sustain human life’ as a constitutional right was progressive and first of its kind. As per the district court the case met all the requirements and allowed to case to proceed on merits. The ruling of the federal court manifests the limits of the courts’ willingness to assign legal responsibility to the government for the harms caused by greenhouse gases. As the plaintiffs have not claimed the governments violation of a particular state or regulation or do not seek for damages and thus is of a nature that cannot be redressed in a federal court. Besides on the basis of standing, the court concluded that issues of this nature had to brought up before political branches or at the electorate at large, thus dismissing the case. Hurwitz expressed that the relief sought by the plaintiffs was beyond “the constitutional power of the courts” and would infringe the doctrine of separation of powers. It is surely a blow to environmental activists.

[1]Juliana, et al v. United States of America, et al., D.C.NO. 6:15-cv-01517- AA

[2]  Amendment Five, The Constitution of the United States, 1787

[3]In re United States, 884 F. 3d 830, 837- 38 ( 9th Cir. 2018)

[4]Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 890- 91

 
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