Youth-Led Lawsuit Seeks to Hold Lawmakers Accountable for Climate Change Harm to Future Generations

Interview with Philip Gregory, co-lead counsel in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit case, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In 2015, attorneys for Our Children’s Trust filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 21 youth plaintiffs, then 9 to 18 years old. The landmark Juliana v. United States case sought a ruling that would require the federal government to design and implement a climate recovery plan, among other issues. The case bounced back and forth from the district level to the appellate court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent it back to the 9th District Court of Appeals.

An unfavorable ruling there in 2020 caused the attorneys and youth plaintiffs to come up with a different strategy. Attorneys in the case against the federal government filed a motion to amend the original complaint seeking a ruling that the nation’s fossil fuel-based energy system is unconstitutional. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs, now ages 13 to 24, said such a court finding would “hold current and future lawmakers accountable for protecting the rights of youth.”

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Philip Gregory, co-lead counsel on the case with Our Children’s Trust. Here he talks about the latest developments in the case and his hopes for a speedy resolution of the landmark case.

PHILIP GREGORY: When we filed our original complaint back in 2015, part of what we requested was for the court to order the government to develop and implement a climate recovery plan based on the scientific evidence. Now that wasn’t the only relief we requested. We requested a lot of other things, but that was one thing that we requested that the court do. Now let’s fastforward to January of 2020, when we received our opinion from the federal Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit. And that opinion said, We, the plaintiffs had proven that these youth plaintiffs were injured. And we had also shown that the injury based on the evidence was caused by the federal government. So we showed injury and we showed causation.

But then the Ninth Circuit panel, rather than focus on all the relief we had requested, it focused on our request for this plan and only focused on our request for this plan. And in its opinion, a federal court under Article Three of the Constitution could not order such a plan. Now that ruling we strongly disagree with. But we said, Okay, let’s go back to the district court and reaffirm that this other relief we’d requested — which is called declaratory relief, or we’d requested a declaratory judgment — let’s go back to the district court and reaffirm that that’s the relief we want and that the court in its discretion can order other relief. But we want declaratory relief, which is to declare the right, declare both that we have a right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life. And also that the United States fossil fuel energy system is unconstitutional because, as the evidence shows, it is injuring these youth plaintiffs.

And because of those injuries, the federal government should not be able to injure citizens. That’s a violation of the Constitution. It was a violation of the Constitution in Brown vs. Board of Education, numerous other Supreme Court cases where the federal government is injuring U.S. citizens and the court declared the government, as a result of that declaration, stopped. And that’s what we hope to do in the trial court, in our new amended complaint in Juliana.

MELINDA TUHUS: If you get the ruling that you want, it would require the government to take steps, to basically end the extraction and burning of fossil fuels?

PHILIP GREGORY: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is what’s going on is the government is harming citizens. And we want a ruling that that conduct is unconstitutional and that the president, his various departments and agencies would not knowingly engage in unconstitutional conduct. So it’s very important to get that declaratory judgment. And we believe the Biden administration would honor such a judicial declaration by Judge Aiken.

MELINDA TUHUS: Whatever the ruling is, you’re saying you hope that, that the Biden administration would not appeal it, right?

PHILIP GREGORY: Because again, this administration during the election pledged that its climate policies would be for the benefit of youth. And if these energy systems are declared to be unconstitutional, then it’s time for the Biden administration to talk with their feet, as we all know. And, so they either go forward and continue to do unconstitutional acts despite the declaration, or then realize that the game is up and use that as a basis to stop the unconstitutional national fossil fuel energy system.

For more information, visit Our Children’s Trust at ourchildrenstrust.org.

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