Youth activists appeal ruling that they can't sue government over climate change

Youth activists appeal ruling that they can't sue government over climate change
© Stefani Reynolds

Attorneys for 21 youth climate activists are filing an appeal after a judge ruled they cannot sue the federal government for failure to act on climate change.

The activists sought a court order to force the government to phase out the use of fossil fuels, but a panel of three judges in January ruled such a decision was beyond the reach of the judicial branch. 

Lawyers are now petitioning for a ruling from all 11 judges in the 9th Circuit, arguing that reversing an earlier district court decision fails to ensure the youth activists' right to a trial. 

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“In overturning the district court, the majority fundamentally changed the way our branches of our government operate, placing the president and Congress beyond the reach of judicial oversight. If this opinion stands, there will be no more constitutional checks and balances on government conduct,” Philip Gregory, a co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, argued. 

In August, two of the three judges said they did not have the power to push the government to address climate change. 

"Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power," 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote for the majority. "Rather, the plaintiffs' impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government."

But the decision from the court's majority sparked a powerful dissent from Judge Josephine Staton, who said the climate change issues raised in the suit were within the court’s authority to redress, and warned that “waiting is not an option.”

"If plaintiffs' fears, backed by the government's own studies, prove true, history will not judge us kindly," Staton wrote. "When the seas envelop our coastal cities, fires and droughts haunt our interiors, and storms ravage everything between, those remaining will ask: Why did so many do so little?"

The case, Juliana v. United States, has been circulating through the court system since 2015.