Children’s Climate Change Lawsuit Considered by Appeals Court for Constitutionality

June 7, 2019 by Tom Ramstack

A federal appeals court in Portland, Oregon heard arguments this week in a lawsuit that accuses the Trump administration of endangering the future of children by its environmental policies that do little to avoid climate change.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 21 children who say pollution is endangering their health and their potential for economic prosperity.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to override the Energy Policy Act and issue a court order to create “an enforceable national remedial plan” that phases out fossil fuel emissions.

The lawsuit is strongly opposed by the Trump Administration, which has eased many environmental restrictions to encourage economic growth.

The Justice Department argued in its pleadings that the courts lack authority to rule on administrative policies. The hearing this week was held before the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Witnesses for the children included environmental scientists. Their requests to the court included a plea for new oil and gas drilling projects to be halted while the lawsuit is pending.

The plaintiffs’ brief in Juliana v. United States says children risk losing their constitutional “rights to life, liberty, property and public trust resources by federal government acts that knowingly destroy, endanger and impair the unalienable climate system that nature endows.”

The hearing originally was scheduled for last October but the federal court granted the Trump administration a rare pretrial appeal on its motion to dismiss. After the Justice Department presented its argument, a U.S. District Court judge denied the government’s request for dismissal.

This week, Justice Department attorneys said the children’s lawsuit was “misguided.” They also said “there is no fundamental constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.’”

The case is renewing ongoing debate on how far courts can go in deciding public policy that is supposed to be determined by the president or Congress.

The lawsuit is “a direct attack on the separation of powers,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Clark.

The government attorneys said the court proceeding was unconstitutional because of the way it is “essentially placing a single district court in Oregon — acting at the behest of a few plaintiffs with one particular perspective on the complex issues involved — in charge of directing American energy and environmental policy.”

The children were represented by a nonprofit advocacy organization called Our Children’s Trust when the lawsuit was filed in 2015. Since then, it has gained other supporters as warnings about global warming become more desperate.

One warning came last year from the United Nations’ climate panel. Their report said prompt international action is needed to avoid more severe food shortages, wildfires and depletion of coral reefs that are the birthing ground for much of the ocean’s wildlife.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, 14 other health organizations and nearly 80 scientists and doctors filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit.

Attorneys for both sides say the plaintiffs would set a big precedent if they win. It would be the first case to establish a constitutional right to environmental policies that seek to avoid climate change.

“This case would have earth-shattering consequences,” Clark said.

A ruling by the appeals court is expected soon but no date has been set.

The case is Kelsey Rose Juliana et al. v. the United States of America et al., No. 18-36082 in the Ninth Circuit.

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