Climate lawsuit with UO connections dealt setback

Climate change protester

A landmark climate change lawsuit with strong ties to the UO brought by youths against the federal government was dealt a blow on Friday when a federal appeals court voted 2-1 that the lower court should dismiss the case.

With the ruling, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S. could not seek relief through the courts: “The panel reluctantly concluded that the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large.”

The decision reverses an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene that would have let the case go forward.

A total of 21 youths signed onto the lawsuit, which was filed in 2015 and has drawn widespread attention. The lead plaintiff in the case, Kelsey Juliana, is a Eugene native and environmental studies major. One of her co-plaintiffs is Tia Hatton, also an environmental studies major at the UO.

A legal theory at the heart of the case was developed by UO law professor Mary Christina Wood in 2008. In addition, the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust representing the plaintiffs includes four UO law school graduates.

Wood said the panel's ruling came as a surprise and believes that if earlier courts had followed the same logic they would have ruled differently in other landmark cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, which found segregation unconstitutional.

"There was a moment of astonishment in reading it," she said. "The decision has sweeping implications for judicial review, and I would expect the full Ninth Circuit to take a hard look at it. Courts in other nations are stepping up to hold their governments accountable for the climate crisis, and ultimately the American judiciary may as well. This case is far from over.”

The two core arguments the plaintiffs are making is that their fundamental rights to life, liberty and property have been violated, and that federal agencies have failed to protect “essential public trust resources” by promoting fossil fuel policies that have contributed to planetary warming and climate destabilization.

However, in a 32-page ruling, Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote that “such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”

In her dissent, Josephine L. Staton wrote: “It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses. Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation.” 

Julia Olson, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said she would appeal the ruling to the full Ninth Circuit.