The League of Women Voters of the United States and the League of Women Voters of Oregon filed an amicus brief supporting youth plaintiffs seeking an order for the federal government to prepare a plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions. The plaintiffs, a group of young Americans under the age of 21, argued that by promoting the export and production of fossil fuels, and failing to mitigate climate change, the government violated their rights under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments to a stable climate system and the Public Trust Doctrine.
On August 12, 2015, a group of young Americans, all under the age of 21 at the time of filing, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Energy’s decision to approve the construction of a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. The plaintiffs argued that the US government’s continued support for fossil fuel extraction and export, and failure to mitigate climate change, exemplified by its approval of the LNG terminal, violated their rights under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments to the US Constitution, as well as the Public Trust Doctrine. The plaintiffs asserted the government, with full knowledge of anthropogenic climate change’s existence and consequences, had injured them by failing to use its powers over federal lands and interstate commerce to prevent it.
Based upon this theory, the plaintiffs stated the federal government’s failure to reduce carbon emissions harmed the atmosphere and climate system, the proper functioning of which was vital to protecting their life, liberty, and property. Furthermore, because the federal government holds the nation’s air, oceans, shoreline, and wildlife in public trust, its failure to mitigate climate change and reduce fossil fuel use violated that duty, given the effects of increased carbon dioxide emissions on the environment.
Finally, the plaintiffs argued their Ninth Amendment rights had been violated, asserting Americans possessed an implicit, unenumerated right to be sustained by the nation’s natural systems, including its climate. The plaintiffs asked the court to revoke the permit for the LNG terminal, declare Section 201 of the Energy Policy Act unconstitutional, and order the defendants to prepare and implement a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to stabilize the climate system.
The League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS) and the League of Women Voters of Oregon (LWV Oregon) filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on September 12, 2016, arguing the plaintiffs’ claims were not non-justiciable political questions, and that the judicial branch had a duty to intervene and protect their right to a livable climate system.
On November 10, 2016, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, stating, “Exercising my “reasoned judgment, […] I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society. Just as marriage is the “foundation of the family,” a stable climate system is quite literally the foundation “of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.” The court, quoting from the League's amicus brief, also rejected the defendants' assertion the case was a non-justiciable political question, declaring, "the majority of youth plaintiffs are minors who cannot vote and must depend on others to protect their political interests."
Defendants then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting the district court be ordered to dismiss the case. LWVUS and LWV Oregon filed a second amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on September 5, 2017, urging the court of appeals to deny the defendants’ petition. On March 7, 2018, the court of appeals denied the defendants’ motion for dismissal. Subsequently, LWVUS and LWV Oregon filed two additional amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs. Litigation continues.
The League was represented in this case by Zemper Eiva Law LLC, Law Office of Andrew Welle, and Crag Law Center.
The League was represented by the Crag Law Center in this case.
Plaintiffs file complaint
Plaintiffs, a group of young Americans under the age of 21, file a lawsuit alleging the United States government violated their rights under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments, as well as the Public Trust Doctrine, by failing to mitigate climate change while having full knowledge of its harmful effects.
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file first amicus brief supporting plaintiffs
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file their first amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the district court, arguing the claims presented were not non-justiciable political questions under United States Supreme Court precedent, and that the judiciary had a duty to protect their right to a livable climate system.
District court denies motion to dismiss
The court denies defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding the case does not present a non-justiciable political question and that the plaintiffs have standing to sue.
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file second amicus brief supporting plaintiffs
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file a second amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the court to uphold the district court's denial of the motion to dismiss. The brief states the youth plaintiffs have constitutional rights that must be vindicated through the judiciary, as they cannot directly influence other branches of government given their lack of voting rights.
Three-judge panel of the court of appeals denies the petition for dismissal
After issuing a stay of the case, a three-judge panel of the court of appeals rejects the defendants’ request to dismiss the case. The panel rules that the request is premature, as discovery had only just begun, and that issues on discovery and separation of powers raised by defendants could be resolved during the normal litigation process or with further appeals to the court of appeals if necessary.
District court partially denies motions of summary judgment
The district court partially denies the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding the defendant failed to satisfy their burden of proof.
United States Supreme Court denies certiorari
The United States Supreme Court denies the defendants’ request for a stay of the case, stating they could request relief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals instead.
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file third amicus brief supporting plaintiffs
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file a third amicus brief, asserting important factual issues on standing and other topics should be decided at trial once the record is fully developed through discovery. The brief also suggests that because children are uniquely vulnerable to climate change's effect the judiciary was their main recourse for protecting their right to a livable climate system.
Three-judge panel of the court of appeals dismisses the case
After further briefing and oral argument, on a 2-1 vote, a three-judge panel of the court of appeals rules the plaintiffs do not have sufficient standing to bring the case, and orders it to be dismissed. In its opinion, the panel acknowledges the seriousness of the reality of climate change, but suggests the appropriate remedies lie with the executive and legislative branches.
Plaintiffs request en banc review of panel’s decision
The plaintiffs file a petition for en banc review of the panel’s decision, asking the full court to reconsider the panel's decision. The plaintiffs argue the panel’s decision contradicts several precedents on judicial remedies and conflates standing and the political question doctrine.
LWVUS and LWV Oregon file fourth amicus brief supporting plaintiffs
LWVUS, LWV Oregon, and the National Children’s Campaign file an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, arguing their fundamental rights were being violated by the government’s failure to address climate change and that judicial intervention was needed.
Court of appeals denies petition for en banc review
The petition for en banc review is denied after failing to garner the support of a majority of non-recused, active judges on the court of appeals.
Plaintiffs move to file a second amended complaint
Plaintiffs move to file a second complaint, stating that it addresses the three-judge panel’s ruling on standing by altering the relief requested.
District court orders parties to hold a settlement conference
Settlement negotiations fail
Court grants leave to file second amended complaint
Plaintiffs file second amended complaint
Plaintiffs file a second amended complaint, again arguing the government's failure to address climate change violates their rights under the Fifth and Ninth Amendments and the public trust doctrine. The amended complaint asks the court to issue an injunction to provide necessary relief and declare the national energy system and section 201 of the Energy Policy Act unconstitutional.