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Juliana v. United States – Another Climate Case Dismissed as Nonjusticiable

On January 17, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the dismissal of the high-profile constitutional climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States, which was originally filed in 2015 in Oregon by a group of children and young adults. While asserting that the plaintiffs had gathered compelling evidence about the impacts of climate change, the Ninth Circuit ultimately concluded that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit in question. Plaintiffs have announced their intention to seek en banc review in the Ninth Circuit, but they likely face an uphill battle in overcoming the Panel’s decision that the case could not be heard on justiciability grounds, a doctrine that has been a barrier to many prior climate change cases against the United States.1

The Plaintiffs’ Case

The plaintiffs in Juliana advocated for the adoption of novel legal theories, such as the expansion of the public trust doctrine to atmospheric resources and the recognition of a due process right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” This asserted right has at various points in the litigation been couched both as a right to be free from catastrophic climate change effects and as a right to the perpetuity of the United States. As a result, plaintiffs sought a court order requiring the government to not only stop the promotion and facilitation of fossil fuel use, but also to “move swiftly to phase out CO2 emissions, as well as take such other action as necessary…to develop a national plan to restore Earth’s energy balance, and implement that national plan so as to stabilize the climate system.”

Reasons for Dismissal

The court dismissed the case for lack of Article III standing. Article III standing requires that a Plaintiff establish: (1) harm, (2) causation, and (3) redressability. In a departure from many of the past climate change cases brought against the United States, the Ninth Circuit Panel expressed confidence that plaintiffs had made a sufficient showing of causation to survive a motion to dismiss. For example, while noting that the stage of litigation required the record to be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the Ninth Circuit’s choice of language suggests that the court is wholly sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ climate change arguments. The Panel indicated that it found the factual record contained “copious” evidence that the government encouraged the use of fossil fuels while aware of the climate risks and “leaves little basis for denying” the factual claims.

However, consistent with prior case law, the Panel concluded that Plaintiffs lacked standing because they were unable to demonstrate that their alleged harms were redressable by the Court.2 Two points of the Court’s redressability analysis bear mention. First, while acknowledging that several of the youth plaintiffs had articulated actual harms related to displacement from their homes, the majority found that the Plaintiffs’ requested order that the United States develop a policy to address climate change would not alleviate these harms. Second, the Panel concluded that the requested relief was outside the authority of the judicial branch because it would entail policy-making that was within the purview of Congress and the executive branch. The Panel explained that even if courts were to simply order a plan made, they would then have to pass judgment on the sufficiency of both such a plan’s contents and its subsequent implementation. The Panel highlighted that this would require supervision over the course of decades, which tends toward the policy-making purview of the political branches. Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “it is beyond the power of an Article III court to order, design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan…to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2.”

What This Means

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Juliana v. United States should not be interpreted broadly. It is limited by the particular features of the litigation at hand. Overall, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the judiciary was not the appropriate venue for plaintiffs’ concerns because granting their requested relief would go beyond the authority of the judicial branch. While the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the complaint is nonjusticiable is consistent with prior cases, the Panel detailed that this was tied to the breadth of the relief requested. It is possible that a more narrowly tailored suit could surmount such redressability concerns.

Nevertheless, Juliana can likewise not be read as a commentary on any actual liability or responsibility that a defendant, government or otherwise, might face. The Ninth Circuit noted how, in a review of standing, the court must look at the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs’ claims. Therefore, allegations of harm and causation will be subject to greater scrutiny in any litigation that does survive the standing stage of review.

1 See, e.g., Kevin Gaynor et al., Challenges Plaintiffs Face in Litigating Federal Common-Law Climate Change Claims, 40 Environmental Law Reporter 10845, 10845 (Sep. 2010).

2 Prior dismissals have relied more heavily on the “political question” doctrine; however, the Ninth Circuit noted how “that doctrine’s factors often overlap with redressability concerns.” See Slip Op. at 31, fn. 9.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.