US Courts Face the Climate Crisis: The Role of Judges in Climate Litigation

By Denise Antolini - United States District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin (retired) shares his views on the critical role judges play in climate litigation in his new essay “American Courts in Climate Emergency”.

Oregon Coast

In his powerful essay on the role of judges in U.S. climate change litigation, retired Federal District Court Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin shares insights into the judicial approach to the looming global crisis.  He explains why courts should not be hesitant to step in when legislative and executive authorities have failed to move or move fast enough, as is the current situation in the United States. 

Judge Coffin emphasizes the importance of an independent judiciary and the unique position of courts in providing a fair forum that seeks the truth.  In his view, the judges acting in climate cases are solidly adhering to the preambular mandate of the U.S. Constitution “to promote the general Welfare.”  

He also notes the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to current and future generations. He reminds us of the US Constitution’s reference to secure welfare and blessings for “Our Posterity.”  Judge Coffin analogizes the current climate litigation landscape to the powerful role of judicial decisions in supporting the civil rights movement.  

He concludes that courts “must play a role” in the climate transformation particularly given the role of courts in upholding the public trust.  Judge Coffin’s last line lingers deeply with the reader: “In the end, a trial in the public forum of a court is an extremely important tool of Democracy.”

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