From the Mouths of Babes… to the Ears of the 9th Circuit

From the Mouths of Babes… to the Ears of the 9th Circuit

By: Sarah C. Thompson

Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana v. USA, the lawsuit brought by a group of children against the federal government seeking relief from environmental harms, has survived yet another motion to dismiss. The suit was initially filed in District Court in Eugene, Oregon, and has been elevated into the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Wednesday, March 7, 2018, the Ninth Circuit refused to grant the United States’ writ of mandamus seeking a dismissal.

The plaintiffs in Juliana are seeking a court order which would require the government to protect the “Public Trust” by, among other measures, adopting a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Plaintiffs’ claims assert that energy policies enacted by the US government and its agencies have enabled the continued “subsidization of fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption, and exportation- activities producing enormous quantities of [carbon dioxide] emissions that have substantially contributed to the increase in the atmospheric concentration of [carbon dioxide].” Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224, 1251 (D. Or. 2016), motion to certify appeal denied, No. 6:15-CV-01517-TC, 2017 WL 2483705 (D. Or. June 8, 2017). These policies, plaintiffs argue, are in violation of the Constitution’s mandate that the government must provide for the “General Welfare” of its people.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit panel found the United States’ motion to be premature, holding that “mandamus relief was inappropriate where the district court had not issued a single discovery order, nor had the plaintiffs filed a single motion seeking to compel discovery. The panel also held that any merits errors were correctable through the ordinary course of litigation. The panel further held that there was no controlling Ninth Circuit authority on any of the theories asserted by plaintiffs, and this weighed strongly against a finding of clear error for mandamus purposes. Finally, the panel held that district court’s order denying a motion to dismiss on the pleadings did not present the possibility that the issue of first impression raised by the case would evade appellate review. The panel concluded that the issues that the defendants raised on mandamus were better addressed through the ordinary course of litigation.” In re United States of America, No. 17-71692, (9th Cir. Mar. 7, 2018).

This case is one among a number of recent “Atmospheric Trust Litigation” lawsuits, and is part of a legal movement whose proponents are attempting to hold the government responsible for reducing carbon pollution. Nature’s Trust, Wood, 2013. The decisions which have enabled Juliana to climb into federal court have, thus far, supported this proposition. Judge Aiken’s opinion in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon posited that “The sovereign’s public trust obligations prevent it from “depriving a future legislature of the natural resources necessary to provide for the well-being and survival of its citizens.” The court expanded that there exists a “natural resources trust” which operates according to basic trust principles, and imposes upon the trustee a fiduciary duty to “protect the trust property against damage or destruction.” Juliana, 217 F. Supp. 3d at 1254.

This lawsuit departs from traditional public trust suits, in that it seeks to position the federal government as trustee. There is considerable debate as to whether the state or the federal government is the holder of a duty to protect resources falling within the public trust, as well as debate as to whether the atmosphere falls within that trust. The Juliana decisions appear to suggest that such a trust duty does indeed belong to the federal government. After a lengthy discussion, wherein Justinian concepts of property, Jefferson’s Social Contract theory, and the seminal Illinois Central case are invoked, Judge Aiken states, “This action is of a different order than the typical environmental case. It alleges that defendants’ actions and inactions—whether or not they violate any specific statutory duty—have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty… I can think of no reason why the public trust doctrine… would apply to the states but not to the federal government.” Juliana, 217 F. Supp. 3d at 1259.

In light of the ever evolving legal climate surrounding energy development, as well as the growing popularity of “Atmospheric Trust Litigation”, those monitoring energy and environmental litigation matters would be wise to monitor Juliana, and be mindful of the impacts such litigation has on developments in energy legislation and regulation.