Assessing the Legality of Juliana v. United States

In recent months, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal has captured the nation’s attention, as it presents the first comprehensive legislative effort to combat global warming. However, in the discussion of the government’s responsibility to mitigate the effects of climate change, a certain case has been lost in the noise. Juliana v. United States is a class action lawsuit in which twenty-one plaintiffs (all undergraduates at various colleges and universities across the country) are suing United States executive agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency, for a violation of their constitutional rights. Each plaintiff has been the victim of wildfires, droughts, and other environmental disasters exacerbated by climate change. They allege that the United States government’s policies supporting the extraction and use of fossil fuels is intensifying global warming, thereby destroying the natural environment and causing the plaintiffs’ injuries. However, before the lawsuit’s broad constitutional claims are tested before the courts, a more pressing question exists: does the lawsuit actually have legal standing? Legal standing to sue is the ability of a plaintiff to bring a lawsuit in federal court. As established by the Supreme Court in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), legal standing to sue is predicated on three principles: the plaintiff must have been the victim of an injury that is “concrete” and “actual,” there must be causality between the injury and the actions of the defendant, and the court must be able to feasibly provide redress for the injury. [1] This article will focus on the legal standing of Juliana, specifically by examining two previous Supreme Court decisions regarding environmental law.

The decision that may be most relevant to Juliana is Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, a 2007 United States Supreme Court case. In Massachusetts, the Court ruled that a group of cities and states had legal standing to petition the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to further regulate the emission of greenhouse gases. In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Brennan determined that the “EPA’s steadfast refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions presents a risk of harm to Massachusetts that is both ‘actual’ and ‘imminent’.” [2] This statement implies that legal standing to sue, based on harm caused by climate change, is predicated on environmental destruction occurring in both the present and future. In Juliana, each plaintiff has demonstrated tangible harm as a result of natural phenomena directly linked to global warming. Thus, previous precedent suggests the plaintiffs have legal standing that is possibly even stronger than the petitioners in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, the state of Massachusetts’ claim to injury was predicated on rising sea levels and potential future costs incurred as a result. The plaintiffs in Juliana have demonstrated injury that has already occurred and is more particularized. For example, the destruction of a house by a wildfire (one of the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs mentioned earlier) is a more specific injury than general damages incurred by rising sea levels, and it is one where the full effects of global warming have already been felt. Therefore, the plaintiffs’ demonstration of injury may be more compelling than in Massachusetts, as it is more particular and does not include potential future injuries.

However, Massachusetts does differ from Juliana in a key aspect. In Massachusetts, the petitioners demanded the creation and enforcement of emissions standards for motor vehicles, a specific policy. [3] In Juliana, the plaintiffs’ claims for relief are significantly broader: they request that the U.S. government “prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO₂.” [4] Beyond the problematic vagueness inherent in this request, it includes a stipulation that the courts “monitor and enforce Defendants’ compliance with the national remedial plan.” [5] This clause would endow the courts with the responsibility for creating a standard to which the “national remedial plan” would be held. Thus, the courts would possess explicit monitoring power over a wide range of legislation. Due to this lawsuit’s assertion of an unprecedented level of judicial involvement within the legislative process (to the point where the courts could feasibly dictate national environmental policy), its legal standing could be weakened as its demands may exceed the judiciary’s powers. While Massachusetts may support the plaintiffs’ standing to sue, it does not provide backing for some of the claims for relief the lawsuit makes.

However, another landmark environment law decision may not be as favorable to Juliana: American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, a 2011 Supreme Court case. In American Electric, a group of states and cities sued five power companies in order to cap the emissions from these companies’ plants. However, the Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs, arguing that the plaintiffs did not have the right to sue. Specifically, the Court argued that the plaintiffs would have to petition the EPA if they desired additional emissions regulation. Thus, this ruling established that the EPA was primarily responsible for regulating CO₂, as it was endowed these powers by the Clean Air Act (CAA). [6]

The argument made in American Electric for dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims could be easily applied to Juliana. The plaintiffs’ claims for redress specifically call for a complete reduction in CO₂ emissions. As established by American Electric, any complaints regarding CO₂ emissions must first be taken to the EPA. Thus, the courts may rule that the plaintiffs would have to first petition the EPA for relief, in accordance with the CAA, before suing the federal government. In the majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “If EPA does not set emissions limits for a particular pollutant or source of pollution, States and private parties may petition for a rulemaking on the matter, and EPA’s response will be reviewable in federal court.” [7] Judging by the process outlined above, the plaintiffs in Juliana may need to take the additional step of petitioning the EPA (one which they have not yet taken) before their lawsuit has true legal standing. Only then could they take the EPA’s response to federal court and sue this agency for failing to adhere to its duties.

Both Massachusetts and American Electric provide glimpses into how Juliana would fare were it to reach trial in a federal courtroom. Very few environmental law cases exist that address the impacts of global warming, meaning these two are essentially the only landmark cases on this issue. However, due to the unique nature of Juliana, much is still unknown. Most Supreme Court decisions rely on previous cases that may have some relevance to the current case, along with any applicable federal statutes. Thus, any serious legal inquiry would require a comprehensive review of all cases regarding environmental policy, all federal statutes relating to climate protection, and the extent of the judiciary’s powers.

Regardless of its legal tenuousness, Juliana is still an unquestionably important lawsuit. As Judge Ann Aiken wrote in her opinion and order, this case poses the central question of whether “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” [8]

If the lawsuit is successful and the plaintiffs’ claims for redress are granted, the court system would become increasingly involved in setting standards for policymaking and dictating solutions to national problems. Additionally, this lawsuit could provide broad legal justification for other lawsuits asserting a right to protections from climate change. Overall, Juliana has the potential to cause some of the most impactful legal ramifications of the 21st century concerning the government’s duty to protect citizens from global warming.

Sources: [1] "Standing." Legal Information Institute. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[2] "Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007)." Justia. 2007. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[3] "Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007)." Justia. 2007. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[4] "Juliana v. United States." Our Children's Trust. September 10, 2015. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[5] "Juliana v. United States." Our Children's Trust. September 10, 2015. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[6] "American Elec. Power Co., Et Al. v. Connecticut, Et Al., 564 U.S. 410 (2011)." Justia. 2011. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[7] "American Elec. Power Co., Et Al. v. Connecticut, Et Al., 564 U.S. 410 (2011)." Justia. 2011. Accessed March 13, 2019.

[8] "US District Court Judge Ann Aiken Affirms Judge Coffins Order Denying Federal Government and Intervenors' Motions to Dismiss, Allowing Case to Go to Trial." Our Children's Trust. November 10, 2016. Accessed March 13, 2019.