In Juliana v. United States, 947 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2020), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to review a denial of summary judgment in a case where a group of plaintiffs had filed a lawsuit against the federal government for insufficient action to prevent climate change.
Even though the court spoke of the need for action to prevent climate change, it concluded that the plaintiffs’ lawsuits were not a proper matter for an Article III court and reversed the denial of summary judgment based on its finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing.
The plaintiffs were a group of 21 younger citizens and a nonprofit environmental organization.
They had alleged that the government’s continued encouragement and permission for fossil fuel extraction were endangering future generations. The plaintiffs were seeking an injunction in which the court ordered the government to develop a plan to phase out fossil fuels.
Here, the Ninth Circuit did not reach the merits of the case, although the courts clearly sympathized with the aims of the lawsuit. In reversing the denial of summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit concluded that it lacked the power to order the relief that the plaintiffs had sought. The major issue was that the relief that the plaintiffs sought was more appropriately suited for the legislative branch. According to the court, issuing an injunction would lead to the unrestrained exercise of judicial power, not based on any constitutional standards. As a result, the federal courts would be an unelected branch exercising power far greater than elected representatives.
The Ninth Circuit held that this particular case did not pass the redressability part of the test used to decide standing. The court explained that it could not issue any order that would prevent the problem about which the plaintiffs were complaining. Even though the plaintiffs showed that they were suffering a particularized injury, the court held that there was nothing that they could do to address it. In order to prevent climate change, there would be a host of policy decisions necessary that a court could not make.
There was one judge dissenting from the panel’s ruling. According to the dissent, allowing the case to proceed to trial could at least give the plaintiffs some relief by allowing for a temporary and partial reprieve from the effects of global warming. The dissenting judge argued that the majority was “throwing up their hands” and failing to deal with a grave issue.
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