First published in the Daily Emerald on July 18th, 2018. On Wednesday, attorneys made oral arguments in Juliana v. United States — the case in which 21 plaintiffs, including two UO students, are suing the U.S. government over carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.
The case, which begins trial on Oct. 29 and is presided over by Honorable District Judge Ann Aiken, could have serious consequences for the United States if the judge finds the government responsible for the plaintiffs’ accusation that the government’s use and production of fossil fuels endangered them. Juliana v. United States also raises questions as to how the Fifth Amendment, which ensures life, liberty, property and due process, should be interpreted in regards to climate change. The case is as much a question of constitutional law as it is about environmental sustainability.
Oral arguments were set to begin at 2 p.m. The Register Guard reported on Tuesday that the government filed a stay with the Supreme Court of the United States, meaning that they intended to stop the case from proceeding; however, during oral arguments, the attorneys for the plaintiffs said that they would file a response for the stay application by noon next Monday.
At 1 p.m., a crowd of roughly 40 demonstrators arrived at the Wayne L. Morse Courthouse bearing turquoise signs that read “LET THE YOUTH BE HEARD #YouthvGov.” Demonstrators sang a version of the song “This land is your land, this land is my land” that substituted the original lyrics for ones that promoted environmental activism and cheered when the plaintiffs and their attorneys entered the courthouse.
Oral arguments began at 2 p.m. with opening remarks coming from the defendants. The United States’ attorneys argued that the case raises an issue with the separation of powers — or the distinct constitutional duties of the federal government’s legislative, judicial and executive branches.
Juliana v. United States has a long list of defendants, which includes President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke.
The government’s attorneys argued that the court ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would be an example of the court system determining policy, instead of allowing Congress to pass legislation.
The United States’ attorneys also argued that the plaintiffs were not able to clearly tether their symptoms of anxiety, asthma and natural disasters such as flooding to U.S. policy and government action.
Julia Olson, the plaintiffs’ attorney, spoke after the defense and made the case that the plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, property and due process were infringed upon by the government’s actions.
In a rebuttal to the government’s assertion that there was an issue with the separation powers, Olson pointed to past issues in which the courts have weighed in on policy, such as cases relating to voting, housing and prison.
“The constitution is silent on the national energy system, but is loud on liberty,” she said.
Despite the differences the parties had, both agreed at the end of the proceeding that President Trump can be dismissed from the case without prejudice — meaning that he is not involved in the case now, but can be brought back in at a later date if necessary.
Olson said that because of the wide scope of the lawsuit, the court would be able to award the plaintiffs the remedy, or relief, they want, even if the president was not involved in the lawsuit.
“The defendants say we can get the remedy we want without the president because we’ve sued other federal agencies and officials,” Olson said. “We’re saying ‘Fine, let’s narrow that issue; he can be out of the case. If we need him, we can move to bring him back in.’”
Following the end of oral arguments, the plaintiffs and their attorneys held a press conference at 4 p.m. and addressed the demonstrators who filed into the courtroom to watch the arguments.
One plaintiff, 21-year-old Jacob Lebel, spoke of the effects of climate change on his farm near Roseburg, Oregon.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of the destabilization that climate change has instilled for me and my generation; it’s one of the worst things I can think of,” he said.
Aji Piper, a 17-year-old plaintiff from Seattle, WA, said that the case can be a catalyst for change in other parts of the world.
“The remedy that we’re seeking has to do with getting the courts to order the government to take responsibility through instituting a national climate recovery plan,” he said. “If we were to win this case and get the remedy and as a country start moving towards a renewable and sustainable economy, we would see the rest of the world follow along.”