By Miranda Steed - On 4 June 2019, a three judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for the youth climate case in a packed courtroom in Portland, Oregon, USA.
Since 2015, twenty-one youth Plaintiffs have been engaged in a groundbreaking lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, to hold their government accountable for its affirmative support of an energy industry that perpetuates the climate crisis. Plaintiffs’ prayer for relief calls for the court to issue an injunction, ordering the federal government to halt its support of the fossil fuel industry and affirmatively switch to a renewable energy system that will support a sustainable climate system. Plaintiffs assert that they have a constitutional right to a healthy climate now and in the future. Specifically, they contend that this exists as an unenumerated right under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which explicitly guarantees rights to life, liberty and property.
After Judge Ann Aiken (U.S. District for the District of Oregon) issued the 2015 decision allowing the case to go to trial, the U.S. government (Defendant) filed a series of interlocutory appeals, disputing whether Plaintiffs have standing to bring their suit under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The Ninth Circuit panel heard oral arguments on 4 June 2019 to determine whether the case should go to trial.
Plaintiff’s attorney, Julia Olson, presented arguments on behalf of the youth Plaintiffs during the oral arguments. She maintained that Plaintiffs’ have a constitutional claim under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for the rights to life, liberty and property because the U.S. government’s affirmative actions supporting the fossil fuel industry have jeopardized the habitability of the planet for younger generations. Olson advocated that the judiciary has the power to order the U.S. government to stop using fossil fuels and switch to a renewable energy system, countering U.S. government attorney Jeffery Clark’s position that a single judge cannot mandate the government to change its national energy system. She powerfully closed, articulating
If we look back on the 20th century, we can see that race and sex discrimination were the constitutional questions of that era, and when our great-grandchildren look back on the 21st century, they will see that government sanctioned climate destruction was the constitutional issue of this century. We must be a nation that applies the rule of law to harmful government conduct that threatens the lives of our children so that they can grow up safe and free, and pursue their happiness. That is what the founders intended.
After the oral arguments, a rally in their favor greeted Plaintiffs as they left the courthouse. Plaintiffs now wait for the Ninth Circuit decision determining whether their case will go to trial.
About the Author
Miranda Steed is a recent graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. She concentrates on international environmental law and human rights. Steed will be the 2019-2020 Global Law Fellow at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University where she will also pursue an LL.M.