• SMM Law

Juliana v. United States, and the (lack of) fundamental right to environmental protection

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

For the first time, in contravention in decades of precedent stating otherwise, a District Court judge for the District of Oregon, in 2016, found that the Due Process Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution included a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property as well as the government’s sovereign duty to protect public grounds i.e. the Public Trust Doctrine, and that the government had violated the same fundamental rights and duties by encouraging and permitting the combustion of fossil fuels. Since the 90's, numerous federal and state cases had been brought, which explicitly stated that no such right existed, and that the government did not need to be careful to avoid encroaching on the People’s enjoyment of their environment. In the instant case, 21 plaintiffs, most of whom were minors and therefore members of a disenfranchised class, brought a lawsuit against the government for continued reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source, despite being fully aware about its effects on climate.

The decision garnered much thoughtful scholarship. Despite being the first of its kind though, the opinion was argued to have many holes, not only substantively but procedurally as well. On appeal, perhaps the most difficult hurdle to get over was the one of standing. Not the issue of a particularized grievance, not even the issue of causation, but the issue of redressability as the court did not think it had the power to direct the government to move away from fossil fuel consumption. In the end, that issue drove the court's decision, which reversed the lower court’s decision. Plaintiff’s then moved for a rehearing with the Ninth Circuit Court. After nearly a year, the Ninth Circuit rejected the motion, cementing Plaintiffs’ fate, re-affirming that the Due Process Clause does not protect a fundamental right for the public, relating to the environment.

While the decision was a blow to the immediate cause, it was not wholly a failure. In their decision reversing the District Court’s findings, the Ninth Circuit accepted the evidence proving causation: that the government was responsible, in part, for causing harm to the environment by consuming fossil fuels. The Court also acknowledged the government was aware of the consequences of the actions. The factual findings in the decision may allow other plaintiffs to be more successful in their cases, or serve as a footing for change through other mechanisms, such as Constitutional amendments or newer legislation.

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