The groundbreaking constitutional climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States is back on track after a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the youth-led case can proceed under a revised version of the complaint.
In an order issued June 1, US District Judge Ann Aiken granted the plaintiffs’ request to file an amended complaint. Lawyers for the youth plaintiffs say this would allow the case, first filed in 2015, to proceed towards trial and a decision on the merits. The case had twice been scheduled to go to trial but relentless opposition from the US government derailed the trial, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually dismissed the case in January 2020.
Judge Aiken’s ruling revives the landmark litigation, which accuses the federal government of violating the fundamental rights of young people by promoting and perpetuating a fossil fuel energy system that exacerbates dangerous climate change. The case had been described as the “case of the century” and the “most important case on the planet.”
Its reactivation comes as the US government passes a debt ceiling bill that greenlights a fossil gas pipeline and weakens the National Environmental Policy Act. The Biden administration’s backing of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is the latest in a string of fossil fuel projects it has authorized, including the massive Willow oil drilling project in the Alaskan Arctic.
Climate scientists and energy experts have made it clear there can be no new fossil fuel development if the world expects to meet its goals for a net-zero energy system and limiting temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C.
Although the Ninth Circuit Court ultimately dismissed the Juliana case in a divided opinion, the court did acknowledge the gravity of the climate emergency, finding it was approaching “the point of no return.” The court also noted that federal government has long understood the climate dangers of fossil fuels. But the majority opinion determined that it was not in the power of the judiciary to grant the injunctive relief requested by the youth plaintiffs, as they were seeking a court order for the government to develop a climate recovery plan. Such a plan would involve complex policy decisions and supervising its implementation would be a decades-long task for the courts.
To get around that hurdle, lawyers for the youth plaintiffs asked permission to amend the complaint, narrowing the relief they were seeking to only a declaratory judgment – a court order declaring the federal government’s perpetuation of a national energy system reliant on fossil fuels to be unconstitutional. Plaintiffs’ lawyers filed the request to amend the complaint with Judge Aiken in March 2021.
More than two years later, Aiken issued her ruling permitting the amended complaint. As she wrote in her order: “a declaration that federal defendants’ energy policies violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights would itself be significant relief.”
The youth plaintiffs and their lawyers were relieved and pleased by the ruling and said they are ready to finally present their case at trial.
“We’ve been waiting for our day in court and now I can say with overwhelming joy that our day is coming,” said Miko Vergun, 22-year-old plaintiff from Beaverton, Oregon.
“Given the straightforward nature of Judge Aiken’s opinion it’s clear the case is ready to proceed
to trial. Our plaintiffs are ready for justice to be done in the courtroom,” Phil Gregory, co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, said in a statement.
The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, which is helping represent the young people in their landmark case against the federal government, said plaintiffs intend to seek a prompt trial date.