Federal judge denies Trump administration appeal in youth climate lawsuit

Looks like the historic lawsuit is headed to trial.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

A federal judge has denied the Trump administration’s appeal in a climate change lawsuit, paving the way for the unprecedented suit to go to trial.

The case — Juliana v. United States — pits a group of youth climate plaintiffs against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry. The plaintiffs allege that the federal government, through its actions and coordination with the fossil fuel industry, have violated their constitutional right to a livable climate. It is the first climate lawsuit to rely on a version of the public trust doctrine — known as atmospheric trust — to make its case, and adds to a growing number of attempts to force climate action through the judicial branch.

The lawsuit was initially filed in August of 2015, against the Obama administration. The Obama administration, as well as three fossil fuel industry groups as intervenors, all filed motions to have the lawsuit dismissed, which was denied in November by U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken. In February, after President Donald Trump was sworn in, the youth plaintiffs filed notice with the court that they would be replacing Obama with Trump.

Following that notice, the Trump administration, again joined by fossil fuel intervenors, filed motions to appeal Aiken’s decision to let the trial move forward. The administration also argued that an earlier request, which asked the government to retain records of communication with fossil fuel companies about climate change, was overly burdensome.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration filed a notice to the District Court of Oregon, on which Judge Aiken presides, giving the court until June 9 to issue a decision on the appeal. If the court did not issue such a decision, the filing said, the defendants would seek a ruling directly from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — a move that Our Children’s Trust, the organization behind the plaintiff’s suit, called “remarkable.”

In her denial of the appeal, Aiken took a moment to point out the irony in the defendant’s request for an expedited decision, writing that “the government’s belief that it is legally entitled to an immediate ruling on a motion it submitted three months ago is rather ironic given that it waited four months to file the request for interlocutory certification in the first place.”

The denial of the appeal means plaintiffs are one step closer to trial, during which they will seek to prove that the United States government has taken action to harm their right to a livable climate. They will also argue that the government has failed to protect commonly held elements, like the atmosphere, in good condition for future generations — a legal doctrine known as the public trust. The plaintiffs will then ask for science-based climate action by the federal government.

“The more evidence we gather for our case, the more I realize how decisively we can win at trial,” Alex Loznak, a 20-year old youth plaintiff from Oregon, said in a statement. “It’s no wonder the Trump administration wants to avoid the trial by seeking an unwarranted, premature appeal. Today’s ruling brings us one step closer to trial and to winning our lawsuit.”

Aiken’s decision to deny the defendant’s appeal comes just weeks after the three fossil fuel industry intervenors filed motions to withdraw from the case. The motions were filed on the same day that crucial discovery was required in the case, which asked fossil fuel companies to state their positions on climate science.

The court has yet to rule on the intervenors’ motions to withdraw.