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Supreme Court won’t block young people’s climate change lawsuit

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch would have stopped the historic effort from going forward.

CREDIT: BILL WECHTER/AFP/Getty Images
CREDIT: BILL WECHTER/AFP/Getty Images

A landmark case brought by a group of young people attempting to force the federal government to take action on climate change will proceed despite efforts from the Trump administration to stop the lawsuit in its tracks.

On Friday night, the Supreme Court declined to halt the lawsuit, Juliana vs. United States, after briefly delaying it last month to consider an emergency request from the government.

The suit alleges that the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to life and liberty has been compromised by the government’s decision to create an energy system reliant on fossil fuels, in addition to arguing that it has failed to protect public trust resources like U.S. waters and general atmosphere.

In a three-page order, the court denied the stay while declaring that the Trump administration can still seek a stay in the 9th Circuit Court. The government contends that the lawsuit is “based on an assortment of unprecedented legal theories” and that the issues at play do not belong in the courtroom. But the Supreme Court kicked the case back to the lower court after initially granting the government the stay.

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“[T]he Government’s petition for a writ of mandamus does not have a ‘fair prospect’ of success in this Court because adequate relief may be available in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,” read the order on Friday, noting that the case could still return to the Supreme Court.

The 2015 lawsuit has survived multiple efforts to have it dismissed under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Filed by 21 children and young adults who range in age from 11 to 22, the suit is one of the most closely-watched legal efforts targeting climate change in the country.

Legal experts have pointed to the suit as potentially groundbreaking climate litigation, given that it seeks to hold the federal government accountable for its role in perpetuating climate change. A final decision could shape the future of litigation on climate issues for years to come.

Supporters of the suit lauded the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday as a crucial step forward.

“These young people have clinched a critical victory in the fight to preserve a livable planet,” said Kassie Siegel, who directs the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, in a statement sent to ThinkProgress and other outlets. “Thanks to the brave plaintiffs, the Trump administration’s climate denial and obstruction is now on trial. Our money is on the kids.”

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Julie Olson, the executive director and chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, which is supporting the lawsuit, greeted the news in a statement.

“The youth of our nation won an important decision today from the Supreme Court that shows even the most powerful government in the world must follow the rules and process of litigation in our democracy,” said Olson. “We have asked the District Court for an immediate status conference to get Juliana v. U.S. back on track for trial in the next week.”

Both Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch indicated they would have stopped the lawsuit entirely, while other justices did not indicate their views. If the case were to return to the Supreme Court, it is unclear how a majority of the bench would rule.

Kelsey Juliana, the 22-year-old plaintiff whose name leads the lawsuit, said Friday that she hoped the latest round of litigation would finally allow the case to head towards a conclusion.

“I’m tired of playing this game. These petitions for stay and dismissal are exhausting,” Juliana said. “To everyone who has invested in this case, to those who’ve followed along our journey for the past three years and counting: stay with us, in hope and in the pursuit of justice.”