Children’s Crusade to Combat Climate Change Continues

Posted on April 18, 2016 by Rick Glick

As reported by Seth Jaffe in this space, a federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change.  Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust.  But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.

The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress.  Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial.  Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think will be short lived.  Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.

This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level.  In June 2014 I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state.  The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it.  On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice.  The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.

In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere.  The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title and restraints on alienation.  The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist.  The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state.  While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.

The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:

The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.

            Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.

A Substantive Due Process Right to Climate Change Regulation? What’s a Lonely Apostle of Judicial Restraint To Do?

Posted on April 13, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust Mosaic_of_Justinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna) (1)case, which seeks an injunction requiring the United States to take actions to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100, should not be dismissed.

The complaint here is similar to, but broader than, others of its ilk.  As we noted previously, at least one federal court has already held that there is no public trust in the atmosphere.  Perhaps in response to that case, the plaintiffs here appear to have focused their arguments on the government’s public trust responsibilities with respect to various waters of the United States, though the opinion does not make clear precisely what the complaint alleges to be the subject of the public trust obligation.

The plaintiffs not only allege that the United States has violated its public trust obligations, but that that violation in turn constitutes a violation of the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.  Magistrate Judge Coffin takes pains to make clear that this is only about a motion to dismiss, but I still think he got it wrong.

Indeed, I think that Magistrate Judge Coffin ignored that well known latin maxim:  “Oportet te quasi ludens loqui.” (Which is how the on-line translator I used translated “You must be joking.”  I hereby disclaim any warranty that this is even close to correct.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in judicial restraint.  And that applies to everyone.  Traditionally, conservatives have accused liberals of judicial activism.  To my totally objective mind, in recent years at least, it is the conservative judges who could more fairly be called activist.  For one case, at least, the shoe seems to be back on its original foot.  I just cannot see this decision standing.  The District Judge should reject Magistrate Judge Coffin’s Findings and Recommendation.  If he or she doesn’t, this case is sufficiently novel and important to warrant interlocutory appeal, and the 9th Circuit should reverse.  And if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to the eight (oops, I meant nine) members of the Supreme Court to get it right.  One of them surely will.