A federal magistrate judge in Oregon has kept alive the dreams of a group of young plaintiffs—aided by environmental advocacy groups—to compel government action against climate change. Like a similar case brought by the same plaintiffs a few years ago in state court, discussed below, the federal case seeks a declaration that government inaction violates the public trust. But in the federal case, plaintiffs added claims that their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property also are being violated.
The judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the matter is a political question better left to Congress. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin reasoned that the pleadings were adequate on their face and that the substantive issues raised by the defendants should await motions for summary judgment or trial. Still, the judge gave hope to the plaintiffs, which, I think, will be short lived. Climate change is simply too big, diffuse and complex an issue for the courts to try to fashion a remedy around.
This same group of plaintiffs has had mixed success in pursuing its objectives at the state level. In June 2014, I posted about the Oregon Court of Appeals reversing and remanding a trial court’s dismissal of a similar claim against the state. The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a determination whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource and whether Oregon state government had breached its fiduciary responsibility by not adequately protecting it. On remand, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten H. Rasmussen granted the state summary judgment and dismissed the suit with prejudice. The case is now again pending before the Court of Appeals.
In his 19-page opinion, Judge Rasmussen concluded that the public trust does not extend to the atmosphere. The contours of the public trust are a matter of state common law, and Oregon law ties the public trust to title to property and restraints on alienation of property rights. The court concluded that there could be no title in the atmosphere and therefore public trust fiduciary obligations do not exist. The court also noted that traditional public trust resources, such as submerged lands, are exhaustible, which under Oregon law confers a fiduciary responsibility on the state. While the atmosphere may be altered or even damaged, the court found that it is not exhaustible.
The court added the following thought, which I think will guide the U.S. District Court when it hears the current case:
The Plaintiffs effectively ask the Court to do away with the Legislature entirely on the issue of GHG emissions on the theory that the Legislature is not doing enough. If "not doing enough" were the standard for judicial action, individual judges would regularly be asked to substitute their individual judgment for the collective judgment of the Legislature, which strikes this Court as a singularly bad and undemocratic idea.
Watch this space for further developments in Oregon state and federal courts.