Posted on November 14, 2016
As reported here, Oregon is among a group of states in which groups of school age plaintiffs are suing to force the government to do more about climate change. On November 10, U. S. District Judge Ann Aiken adopted the magistrate judge’s April Findings and Recommendations in Juliana et al. v. United States to deny the government’s motion to dismiss.
Plaintiffs seek a declaration that U. S. policies and actions have substantially contributed to climate change—even though the government was aware of the climate consequences—and an injunction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Plaintiffs allege that the government’s failures violate plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights and violate the government’s public trust obligations.
The judge found that plaintiffs have presented facts sufficient to state a cause of action, stressing that the context of her ruling is a motion to dismiss in which she must assume the truth of the pleadings. In her 54-page opinion, Judge Aiken recognizes and embraces that this case breaks new ground, concluding: “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it.”
In my earlier post, I suggested that the case is not likely to succeed, as climate change is so complex, diffuse and political a problem as to render the case nonjusticiable. Although Judge Aiken was undeterred by these considerations, I still believe that to be true. Still, did the election of Donald Trump give new impetus to the case?
The president-elect believes human-induced climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has pledged to walk from the Paris Accords and to undo the Obama Administration’s executive orders and rulemakings to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and has chosen climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team. This, combined with a solidly Republican Congress with no inclination to address climate change, makes it pretty clear that the only action we can expect by the federal government is to roll back any forward progress made over the past eight years.
It seems the case to force action is more difficult where the government is appearing to grapple with climate change, as Obama attempted to do despite congressional hostility. Could it make a difference in this case that the government not only takes no action, but denies the overwhelming scientific evidence of rising global temperatures resulting from GHG emissions? Could the election create a sense of urgency that a court may feel the need to address? Maybe, but this still strikes me as tough case to sustain.
A more likely result of the election is to see some states pushing harder for some kind of carbon pricing, like a cap and trade program or a carbon tax. Washington State voters just rejected a carbon tax initiative, but the issue is far from dead there. California has a cap and trade system, and Oregon is expected to take up the issue in next year’s legislative session. Local environmentalists think the chances of a successful local climate initiative are high. The election results very likely improve those chances, at least on the West Coast, and perhaps in other regions convinced of the need to act.
Posted on April 18, 2016
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.
Posted on April 13, 2016
Late last week, Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin concluded that the most recent public trust 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.
Posted on June 16, 2014
On June 11, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that two teens are entitled to a judicial declaration of whether there exists a “public trust” obligation in state officials to “protect the State’s atmosphere as well as the water, land, fishery, and wildlife resources from the impacts of climate change.” In Chernaik v. Kitzhaber, the court reversed the trial judge’s dismissal of the case and remanded for a decision on the merits.
This case is one of dozens brought in the name of kids across the country to force government to act more aggressively to combat climate change. The young activists—with a little help from the environmental advocacy groups Crag Law Center, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Environmental Law Center—argued that the state has displayed a frustrating lack of urgency: “I don’t want to live in a wasteland caused by climate change,” Olivia Chernaik told the Eugene Register-Guard.
Who could argue with that? As it happens, no one did at this stage of the proceedings. Rather, the case turned on whether a judiciable controversy exists under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act. Plaintiffs asked for a declaration that a public trust obligation exists and that Oregon officials have violated that trust by not preventing climate change, and they asked for an injunction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a prescribed amount, which plaintiffs characterize as the “best available science.” The state countered that such declarations could not lead to practical relief by the court, and that if they did, the court would be intruding on the legislature’s prerogative to determine whether current policies are adequate and what additional measures may be needed.
The court rejected the state’s arguments, holding that such declarations could stand on their own, which would lead the legislature to take appropriate steps without an injunction. In other words, the kids should get their day in court to show that a fiduciary duty exists under the public trust doctrine to protect against climate change and which duty the state has failed to properly discharge.
The public trust doctrine stems from English common law, which states that some resources are so central to the well-being of citizens that they cannot be freely alienated and must be protected. The doctrine was adopted by the U. S. Supreme Court in its 1892 decision Illinois Central Railway v. Illinois, which held that the state could not convey outright title to a substantial segment of the Chicago lakefront.
Many such cases followed, but in 1983 the influential California Supreme Court, in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, extended the doctrine to overlay ongoing public trust obligations to limit vested water rights. In that case, the issue was whether the state must act to limit the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s appropriation of water from tributaries to Mono Lake in the face of declining lake levels.
The expansive reading given the public trust doctrine by the California Supreme Court sets the stage for court imposition of regulatory controls to protect the environment. When the Chernaik case is restarted by the trial judge on remand, we will see if Oregon courts will pick up the baton.
Doing so could mean big problems for the state, and perhaps lead to unintended consequences. It would be one thing for the court to order the state to do more to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and another to force the state to find the funds. In a zero sum budget process, which other essential programs would need to be cut? And do we want state court judges prescribing and monitoring remedial measures? Despite the slow pace and inefficiency of the legislative process, wouldn’t we prefer our elected leaders to develop the complex and coordinated suite of measures to address climate change?
My guess is the courts won’t go there. But to Olivia Chernaik and co-plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, congratulations on your win and for elevating climate change on the state’s agenda.
Posted on June 7, 2012
Last week, the District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the so-called “public trust” climate change law suit. I will certainly give the plaintiffs in these cases credit for both originality and persistence. Legal merit and good public policy are another matter.
In any case, the plaintiffs sued EPA and various other federal agencies, seeking a finding that the agencies have failed adequately to protect a public trust asset, also known as the atmosphere, from climate change. The plaintiffs requested an injunction requiring that the agencies take actions necessary to reduce CO2 emissions by 6% yearly, beginning in 2013.
It did not take the Court long to dismiss plaintiffs’ arguments – and the case. The Court’s opinion has two critical holdings. First, since there can be no diversity action against the United States, the plaintiffs do not have access to federal courts unless there is a federal question. However, as the Court noted, the public trust doctrine is a creature of state law; there is no federal public trust doctrine.
Secondly, the Court concluded that, even if there ever had been a federal public trust doctrine, any such doctrine has been displaced by the federal Clean Air Act. Here, the Court relied squarely on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The plaintiffs here tried to limit AEP to displacement of public nuisance claims, but the Court was having none of it, pointing out that AEP clearly stated that it was not federal public nuisance claims that were displaced by the CAA, but federal common law claims generally that were displaced.
Moreover, notwithstanding the plaintiffs’ creativity, the Court noted that:
"The question at issue in the Amer. Elec. Power Co. case is not appreciably different from the question presented here—whether a federal court may make determinations regarding to what extent carbon-dioxide emissions should be reduced, and thereafter order federal agencies to effectuate a policy of its own making. The Amer. Elec. Power. Co. opinion expressed concern that the plaintiffs in that case were seeking to have federal courts, in the first instance, determine what amount of carbon-dioxide emissions is unreasonable and what level of reduction is practical, feasible and economically viable."
And that really is the issue. Even if one believes that the government should be taking more aggressive action on climate change – and I certainly am among those who think it should be doing so – having the courts decide what level of reductions are necessary, and by when, is nuts. It’s just not a way to make public policy on the most complex environmental issue of our time.
Back to the drawing board for citizen plaintiffs. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.