By George Harvey
In 2015, a group of youthful plaintiffs aged eight to nineteen filed a lawsuit against the United States claiming that the federal government was “deliberately allow[ing] atmospheric CO2 concentrations to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history.” They further claimed that by doing this, the government was violating their rights to the life, liberty, and property they would have in the future.
On July 30, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled on applications from the Trump administration to stop or delay the case in various ways. Simply put, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the youths have a right to sue, and the case will go forward as scheduled.
Juliana v. United States is an extraordinary lawsuit with implications that may give it an important place in history. It goes beyond the question of whether the federal government and its agencies are doing damage exacerbating climate change. It takes the issue of challenging climate policy into the court and even creates questions about whether and when the courts can direct the government’s policies. This is a real issue of the doctrine of separation of powers.
The plaintiffs have had a fair amount of help in this case. Earth Guardians, an environmental organization, and Dr. James Hansen, who brought the issue of climate change to the attention of many Americans, are giving their support. The legal fees are being paid by donors, or the work is being done pro bono. Support is coming from many quarters, and the issue is being brought to the attention of authorities in other countries.
The case went through a typical set of legal stages, slowly grinding its way through the courts under the last administration. The arrival of the current administration brought a change in government tactics. The attacks on the case have been extraordinary, with constant attempts to block progress.
The courts have been mostly unsympathetic to those attacks. While one of them did delay the case somewhat, setting the court date for arguments back from February to October of this year, it looks like the time for making those delays is over. The Supreme Court denied a Trump administration application for a stay and maintained the court date of October 29, 2018, as set by the District Court.
This case has levels of complexity that are daunting. The implications of the court decisions that have been made so far may be difficult for a layman (such as myself) to understand. But a few very simple observations might be worth making.
One is that as this case has gone through the court systems, the decisions were very often unanimously against the federal government. In the case of the latest decision, the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to slow or delay the case, and the decision that the youth plaintiffs have a right to sue over the quality of the environment they will live in in the future was unanimous. Justices appointed by conservative Republican presidents sided with the youths against the Trump administration.
It will be interesting to see where this goes in October.