Juliana v. United States: The Constitutional Argument for Climate Change Protection

Posted by on July 17, 2017

By Anna Rasmussen*

In August of 2015, a group of 21 youths, currently aged 9–20, filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against President Barack Obama (now President Donald Trump) and agencies including the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the Department of Defense.[1] The plaintiffs state that, “For over fifty years, the United States of America has known that carbon dioxide (“CO2”) pollution from burning fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their well-being and survival.”[2]

Their argument focuses on four constitutional issues.

  • Violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment: The complaint alleges that, “our nation’s climate system, including the atmosphere and oceans, is critical to Plaintiff’s rights to life, liberty, and property.”[3]
  • Violation of Equal Protection Principles of the Fourteenth Amendment, embedded in the Fifth Amendment: Plaintiffs further argue that Defendants’ failure to take action to protect against climate change has “denied Plaintiffs the same protection of fundamental rights afforded to prior and present generations of adult citizens.”[4]
  • Violation of Ninth Amendment Unenumerated Rights Preserved for the People: The plaintiffs argue that “protecting the vital natural system of our nation for present and future generations is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty and is deeply rooting in this nation’s history and tradition.”[5]
  • Violation of the Public Trust Doctrine:[6] The complaint alleges that “Defendant have failed in their duty to care to safeguard the interests of Plaintiffs as the present and future beneficiaries of the public trust.”[7]

As Magistrate Judge Coffin, a Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court of Oregon, notes, this is “a novel theory somewhere between a civil rights action and NEPA/Clean Air Act/Clean Water Act suit to force the government to take action to reduce harmful pollution.”[8]

Shortly after the complaint was filed, on November 12, 2015, “nearly every oil and gas company in the world” sought to intervene to oppose the lawsuit.[9] On January 13, 2016, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the National Association of Manufacturers were granted permission to intervene.10 These encompass groups such as BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, and the Koch Industries among others.[10]

The defendants quickly sought to dismiss the case, but on April 8, 2016 Coffin, ruled against dismissing the case.[11] Judge Coffin ruled that the plaintiffs did have a right to bring the action. Even though the complaints are “shared by most of the population or future population,” there is still a “direct or threatened direct harm” to the individual plaintiffs[12]. He also noted that “the court should be loath to decline standing to persons suffering an alleged concrete injury of a constitutional magnitude.”[13]

Judge Coffin also found that the case should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim on which appropriate relief could be granted. Coffin stated: “assuming plaintiffs are correct that the United States is responsible for about 25% of the global CO2 emission, the court cannot say, without the record being developed, that it is speculation to posit that a court order to undertake regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to protect the public health will not effectively redress the alleged resulting harm.”[14]

On November 10, 2016, a motion to dismiss for “lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim” was once again denied.1 Adopting Magistrate Judge Coffin’s reasoning, Judge Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon reasoned, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”[15]

The court wants to move quickly with a trial happening “during the summer or early fall of 2017.”1 Judge Coffin guaranteed that “we are not going to take five years to try this case. That’s not going to happen.”1

While this is a “novel theory,” that does not mean that it is without merit.  The fact that science has advanced to a point where the negative impact that pollution has on the environment and on health can be proved allows the court to create a direct link between governmental inaction and damage to the environment and people’s health. The strength of the case will rely not only on the plaintiff’s ability to prove their constitutional claims but also the science linking government policy to tangible effects in the environment that can be remedied through government action.

While the plaintiffs have a strong case, they will face heated opposition not only from companies in the oil industry but also President Trump, who has been very clear about his views surrounding environmental regulation.[16] The administration has already begun efforts to curtail environmental regulations in the name of economic growth.[17]

Since this is such a “novel theory,” the case’s outcome will have a significant impact on the role that the courts, through constitutional law, can have on the President’s power through executive orders and his control over the EPA. A win for the plaintiffs could lead to less executive autonomy over environmental regulation and more protective legislation. Conversely, a win for the defendants will leave the executive power over environmental regulations where it is now, which will lead to a continued loosening of environmental regulations under the Trump administration.


*Anna Rasmussen is a Junior Editor for MJEAL.  She can be reached at annaras@umich.edu.

[1] U.S. Landmark Federal Climate Lawsuit: Details of Proceedings, Our Children’s Trust, https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/federal-proceedings (last visited Feb. 21, 2017).

[2] Complaint for Plaintiffs at *1, Juliana v. United States, No. 6:15-cv-01517-TC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156014 (D. Or. Nov. 10, 2016).

[3] Id. at 84.

[4] Id. at 87.

[5] Id. at 91.

[6] As Julia Olson, the executive director or Our Children’s Trust explains, “the public trust law in our country and around the world says that common resources like water and air are held in trust by the government for the people and for future generations.” Press Release, Our Children’s Trust, America’s Youth File Landmark Climate Lawsuit Against U.S. Government and President (Aug. 12, 2015).

[7] Complaint for Plaintiffs at *93.

[8] Juliana v. United States, No. 6:15-cv-1517-TC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52940, at *3 (D. Or. Apr. 8, 2016).

[9] Press Release, Our Children’s Trust, World’s Largest Petroleum Companies Call Youth’s Landmark Climate Lawsuit “a Direct Threat to [Their] Businesses” (Nov. 12, 2015).

[10] Press Release, Our Children’s Trust, Fossil Fuel Industry Becomes Names Defendant in Youths’ Landmark Constitutional Climate Lawsuit (Jan. 14, 2016).

[11] Juliana, No. 6:15-cv-1517-TC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52940.

[12] Id. at *7.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at *11.

[15] Juliana, No. 6:15-cv-01517-TC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156014, at *50.

[16] Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, Trump to Roll Back Obama’s Climate, Water Rules Through Executive Action, Washington Post (Feb. 20, 2017).

[17] Id.

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