Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Courting Climate Justice
distributed 5/31/19 - ©2019

You are invited -- and encouraged -- to go to court next Tuesday (but only as a visitor).

On Tuesday, June 4, the "Our Children's Trust" lawsuit will be in federal court for a critical procedural hearing. The session will be live-streamed, starting at 2:00 Pacific Time. If you are concerned about climate justice, you'll find this an important and historic hour of viewing.

Why is the session before the Ninth Circuit Court so important? What can you expect to see, and what won't you see? And how can you be involved before next Tuesday?

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Since the fall of 2017, I've written often about the most significant of the Our Children's Trust lawsuits, Juliana v. United States. In 2015, 21 youth filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the US government. Their complaint asserts that, through the government's affirmative (knowing and intentional) actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation's constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

Because of the unprecedented threat of the climate crisis, this lawsuit breaks new ground in asserting the right to a livable future. If it gets to trial, advocates say that it will be "the trial of the century," with implications more sweeping than the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

I say "if" because the US government has fought hard to keep the case from coming to trial, using a variety of odd legal maneuvers to block the suit. Three times, the US Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the youth's case, instructing the process to continue. Since last November, though, there has been yet another stay imposed while additional objections are considered.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear from lawyers representing the 21 youth, and from the US Justice Department. The appeals court will be deciding two matters:

  • Whether the case should continue to trial (which would happen fairly quickly)
  • Whether the federal government should halt new fossil fuel extraction projects while the court decides the case (because more extraction makes the already bad situation even worse)

The presentations made to the appeals court -- and the questions that the judges ask of the lawyers -- will determine if the trial of the century happens. It is a very big deal.

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If you watch the court proceedings, what can you expect to see?

I think that I can promise that Tuesday's hearing will not be in the style of "reality TV" courtroom shows like Judge Judy. Judge Judy Sheindlin's show is designed for entertainment value, deals with low-stakes legal issues, and has no lawyers involved. The abrasive and insulting judge can decide two or three cases in a half-hour show. (You can watch her process a case about a stolen purse in just 30 seconds!) You will not see anything like that next week.

The ninth circuit court is not there to entertain us, it is dealing with really high-stakes and ground-breaking legal questions, and teams of superb lawyers will be doing their very best to win. The judges will be polite and careful. The hearing will probably last about an hour, and no decision will be made that day.

I'm expecting that the arguments before the court will be really technical. Last January, I sat in for a hearing before the Colorado Supreme Court on a state-level case of climate justice, also enabled by the Our Children's Trust team. It was fascinating, and also really hard to follow as the questions and answers dealt with the intricacies of laws and precedents. Much of what happens on Tuesday will be like that.

But there will be memorable moments. The chief legal counsel for the youth, Julia Olson, will have to make a compelling argument for why these youth have a right to be heard, why there is great urgency for getting the case to trial, and why all new fossil fuel extraction projects should be halted until the case is decided. Those are challenging things to assert, and she'll have to do it very well.

On the other side, we may get to hear some of the astonishing arguments from the government spoken out loud. Will the Justice Department lawyers say that "there is no constitutional right to a livable future?" Will they say again (as has been done in the multiple "writ of mandamus" filings) that the US government would be deeply inconvenienced by the time and expense of going to trial? What will the federal lawyers say about stopping all new extraction while the case is active?

How will the three-judge panel approach the hearing? What sort of questions will they ask? We can watch to see when they appear engaged and intrigued, and when they're frustrated. No decision will be made, but we may get some tantalizing clues.

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Tuesday's hearing in Portland, Oregon, will begin at 2:00 PM Pacific time (5 PM Eastern). The Ninth Circuit Court will be live-streaming the proceedings, as they do with all of their cases. To make it easier, the Youth v. Gov advocates will send you a link to the livestream shortly before the hearing begins. They're hoping that this will be "the most watched Ninth Circuit oral argument ever," providing evidence of the massive interest we have in this case. Please sign up, and please watch the hearing.

For our friends in the Denver area, I invite you to join Eco-Justice Ministries for a watch party. Come to Washington Park United Church of Christ (and our office location), 400 S Williams St in Denver, at 3 PM to watch the hearing and join in conversation about what we see.

Before Tuesday's hearing, there are opportunities for us to stand in support of the youth plaintiffs and other concerned youth. Tomorrow, Saturday, June 1, young people across the U.S. will hold local press conferences to tell the world why this case is so important in protecting their future. Check to see if one of these press conference/rallies will be held near you, and show up to bear witness to your support.

The press conference in Denver will be held at the Colorado State Capitol, beginning at 11 AM on Saturday. I'll be there, and I'd love to see many of our local friends.

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The legal action of Juliana v. US inspires me and fills me with hope. While US politics are bogged down about how to deal with the climate crisis -- or whether to even acknowledge that it exists -- the lawsuit by 21 visionary youth goes to the heart of the legal and moral question. They are demanding that their generation and those to come have a right to a livable future. They are announcing that policies of the US government are denying them that right.

Eco-Justice Ministries is the lead agency in a "friend of the court" filing by religious groups in support of the youth for Tuesday's hearing. We see this case as critically important in calling the United States to make the dramatic changes that are needed to address the climate crisis.

Join with me in watching the hearing on Tuesday. Attend a press conference on Saturday if you can. Lift up the youth of Our Children's Trust in the prayers of your church on Sunday. And talk to your friends, neighbors and colleagues about this important trial.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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