Court resumes in Eugene for youth lawsuit over federal climate inaction

A crowd of several hundred protesters and spectators gathered outside Eugene’s Federal District Courthouse on Tuesday morning, carrying signs, waving banners and waiting in line to sit in an overflow courtroom with a livestream of their case of interest.

But the crowd’s size and energy wasn’t the most notable aspect of Tuesday’s court proceedings. It was the plaintiffs they came to support.

Twenty-one youth, aged 10 to 20 —including UO student Tia Hatton— are suing the federal government for climate change in Juliana v. The United States of America. U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken heard preliminary oral arguments for the case on Tuesday, following the government’s second move to dismiss the case.

The youth plaintiffs claim that the federal government, in allowing the continued use of fossil fuels, violated constitutional rights to life, liberty and property and failed to protect public resources under the Public Trust Doctrine. The youth seek a court order requiring the executive branch to significantly decrease carbon dioxide levels.

“These children cannot wait another 50 years —they can’t even wait another 5 — to secure their rights,” said the youth’s chief counsel, Julia Olson, during the oral arguments. “If global warming continues, can justice exist?”

Olson is an adjunct professor in the UO School of Law. She serves as the Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust, a legal organization that has advocated for children around world and brought similar climate cases in all 50 states. OCT represents the plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S..

Representing the defendants is a team of government lawyers and attorneys for oil and manufacturing companies that have joined their side as intervening defendants. They filed an objection to an April decision that would have permitted the case to continue.

The defendants contend that the youth lack standing— they cannot prove they’ve been truly injured by the government directly. They also argue that applying the Public Trust Doctrine and ordering government cuts in carbon emissions lie outside of the Federal District Court’s power.

“Courts cannot order executive and legislative branches to order sweeping changes without disrupting the balance of power between branches,” lawyer Quin Sorenson said to Aiken.

If the case makes it to trial, it will be a historic moment.

“The defendants’ motion is saying that it isn’t the court’s job to intervene in this kind of policy,” said UO environmental law professor Mary Wood in an earlier interview with the Emerald. “This is exactly the point here. The plaintiffs are saying that the other branches of government should have done something a long time ago, now it’s up to the courts to force them to take action.”

Aiken has 60 days to issue a decision on whether the case will move to trial.

Several of her comments elicited cheers from the packed room of spectators watching the livestream. When Sean Duffy, an attorney for the U.S., argued that government was already making some progress toward reducing emissions, she said that many government leaders “are begging for more help.” She added that they could use pressure from the court to continue and speed up their progress.

“The court has an obligation to keep eyes on the bigger picture,” Aiken said. “Sometimes lawyers get so caught up in arguments, they miss an opportunity.”


Timeline of the Case

Aug 12, 2015: International Youth Day – Plaintiffs file lawsuit against Federal Government Agencies and the Office of the President of the United States.

Nov 12, 2015: Global oil companies and manufacturers, acting as trade groups, file to oppose the lawsuit as intervenor defendants against the plaintiffs. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin granted them defendant status on Jan 14, 2016.

Nov 17, 2015: Defendants request that the court dismiss the case, citing a similar court case that was dismissed in 2012.

Jan 6, 2016: Plaintiffs file response to federal government’s request to dismiss the case.

Mar 9, 2016: Magistrate Judge Coffin hears oral arguments from the defendants on their motion to dismiss the case.

Apr 8, 2016: Magistrate Judge Coffin rules in favor of the youth plaintiffs, denying defendants’ motions to dismiss the case.

Sep 13, 2016: U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken hears oral arguments from the defendants, who objected to Magistrate Judge Coffin’s decision. Within the next 60 days, Judge Aiken will issue a decision on whether Juliana v. U.S. can proceed to trial.

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Emily Olson

Emily Olson

Emily Olson is an associate news editor at the Emerald. She likes coffee.