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Youth Climate Activists Seek Court Ruling That US Fossil Fuel-Based System Is Unconstitutional

A win in the case would "hold current and future lawmakers accountable for protecting the rights of youth," said attorney Julia Olson.

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel at Our Children's Trust, stands with some of the youth plaintiffs from the landmark lawsuit <em>Juliana v. United States</em>. (Photo: courtesy of Robin Loznak)

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel at Our Children's Trust, stands with some of the youth plaintiffs from the landmark lawsuit Juliana v. United States. (Photo: courtesy of Robin Loznak)

While still preparing for a potential U.S. Supreme Court battle, lawyers representing youth climate activists are shifting to a new strategy for the landmark Juliana v. United States case against the federal government with a motion to amend the complaint to seek a ruling that the nation's fossil fuel-based energy system is unconstitutional.

The suit, launched in 2015, argues that the federal government's actions directly contributed to the climate crisis. After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the court doesn't have the authority to force the government to prepare a climate recovery plan, attorneys for the 21 plaintiffs—now aged 13-24—filed the amendment motion (pdf) Tuesday in a federal court in Eugene, Oregon.

The new strategy draws inspiration from Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the high court's 1954 ruling that racial segregation of schools violates the Constitution.

Our Children's Trust, the law firm representing the plaintiffs in Juliana, explained that "if the motion to amend the complaint is granted, attorneys for the youth plaintiffs would not submit a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court to correct the legal errors identified in the opinion by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals."

"Instead, the plaintiffs would proceed with trial and wait for a final judgment from the district court before seeking the highest court's review of any adverse rulings," said the Eugene-based firm's statement (pdf).

Julia Olson, chief legal counsel of Our Children's Trust, emphasized that this type of amendment "is one of the most common motions filed in a case, so it is not unusual to make this request."

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Olson also highlighted the historic potential of the case, whichever legal path it takes.

"A declaratory judgment in favor of the youth in ​Juliana​ would provide protection for the constitutional rights of our children from the shifting winds of the political majority," she said. "A ​Juliana​ win would declare that the national fossil fuel energy system is unconstitutional and hold current and future lawmakers accountable for protecting the rights of youth."

The motion says that "plaintiffs seek declaratory relief that 'the United States' national energy system that creates the harmful conditions described herein has violated and continues to violate the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and plaintiffs' constitutional rights to substantive due process and equal protection of the law.'"

"This relief is squarely within the constitutional and statutory power of Article III courts to grant, would wholly and partially redress plaintiffs' ongoing injuries caused by defendants' ongoing policies and practices, and therefore cures the standing deficiencies identified by the 9th Circuit," the motion continues.

The filing cites the Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling Monday in ​Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski—for which the injuries were solely in the past, unlike Juliana—to support the argument that courts could provide the relief sought. The motion further notes that the high court's majority and Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, "agreed that prospective relief (for ongoing as opposed to past injuries) that is declaratory in nature suffices for Article III redressability."

As Juliana moves forward, Our Children's Trust is urging President Joe Biden—who was elected with support from a wide range of climate experts and activists—to pursue a different path from his predecessor.

If U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken grants the motion to amend, the firm pointed out, "key officials with the Biden administration, who are now defendants in the ​Juliana ​case, would be faced with the decision of whether to let the case go to trial or whether to employ the same scorched earth tactics as the Trump administration to deny the plaintiffs their day in court."

"Another path the new administration could take is to agree to engage in settlement talks with the plaintiffs," the firm added, "sending the signal that the Biden administration will stand for the constitutional rights of children and climate justice, and work with the youth to come to a sensible resolution based on technically and economically feasible solutions to the climate crisis."

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