Trump administration files Hail Mary appeal to derail youth climate lawsuit

Just one day after a district court denied an appeal, the administration tried again.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Last week, a district court in Oregon denied the Trump administration’s appeal in a climate change lawsuit, seemingly paving the way for the historic case — which pits a group of children and young adults against the federal government — to head to trial.

But just one day after U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken rendered her decision, the Trump administration, in an extraordinary move, filed yet another appeal, asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review Aiken’s decision to allow the case to move forward.

The petition, known as a writ of mandamus, argues that the Ninth Circuit should use its supervisory powers to “end this clearly improper attempt to have the judiciary decide important questions of energy and environmental policy to the exclusion of the elected branches of government.”

Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit legal group behind the lawsuit, as well as legal experts described the Trump administration’s petition as “drastic” and “extraordinary.”

“Mandamus of this sort is truly extraordinary and rarely granted,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and soon-to-be dean of Berkeley Law, told ThinkProgress via email. “The strong presumption in federal courts, reaffirmed by the Supreme Court as recently as yesterday, is that appellate courts don’t get involved until the trial court proceedings are completed.”

The decision whether or not to review the District Court’s decision — and, ultimately, whether to overturn its decision allowing the case to move forward — will reside with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

If the case moves to trial, attorneys for the plaintiffs will attempt to apply the doctrine of public trust — which holds that the U.S. government must preserve certain commonly-held elements — to the atmosphere, arguing that the U.S. government is failing to hold the atmosphere in good health for future generations. Attorneys for the plaintiffs will also argue that the U.S. government has violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights to a livable climate through certain policies, like fossil fuel subsidies, which favor the burning of fossil fuels that lead to global warming.

The lawsuit was initially filed in August of 2015, and named the Obama administration as a defendant. When Donald Trump took office in January, plaintiffs filed for the Trump administration to be named as a defendant. The Trump administration then filed an appeal of Aiken’s decision to allow the case to move forward, arguing that the case centers on a political question best left to the legislative and executive branches of government.

That appeal was denied last week, after which the administration filed a petition for writ of mandamus.

“The U.S. government is trying to use every possible tool they can to avoid trial,” Julia Olson​, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs, said in a press statement. “Because they know applying the law to the facts and science in this case will mean certain defeat for them at trial. If the Trump administration was at all confident it could defend itself at trial, it would be preparing for trial.”

The U.S. District Court of Oregon, meanwhile, is still deciding whether or not to allow three fossil fuel groups, which had intervened as defendants in the case, to withdraw from the lawsuit. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) — all major trade groups representing fossil fuel and manufacturing interests — filed motions to withdraw from the case just before a court-imposed deadline would have forced them to state their positions on climate science.