July 23, 2024

Oregon lawsuit by youth over climate inaction not likely to be helped by judicial win in Montana

Young people hold a climate strike at the Oregon State Capitol in September 2019, joining cities across the world. Salem Reporter photo by Saphara Harrell
July 10, 2024

The U.S. Justice Department said the Oregon youth climate lawsuit alleges violations of federal, not state, constitutional rights making it different from Held V. Montana

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Young activists in Oregon involved in a long-running lawsuit against the U.S. government over climate inaction won’t have their case helped by a recent win for Montana youth, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

The 21 plaintiffs in Oregon suing the federal government for violating their constitutional right to life, liberty and property by allowing climate change to threaten their future hoped a recent landmark ruling in Montana would finally get their case to trial. But federal justice department officials have argued against that. 

A Montana district court judge ruled Aug. 14 in Held v. Montana that state officials had violated the rights of 16 young plaintiffs to a clean and healthy environment guaranteed by Montana’s constitution when they ruled that climate change would not be taken into account when permitting energy projects.

Lawyers representing the 21 plaintiffs in the Oregon case, Juliana v. United States of America, said in a court filing shortly after the ruling that it should be applied to the Oregon case and that the suit should be moved to trial after nearly a decade of waiting. The lawsuit was originally filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene in 2015, when the plaintiffs were between 8 and 18 years old.

“The reasoning, findings and conclusions set forth in the Held order are persuasive,” the Oregon lawyers wrote, arguing that the injuries from policies promoting fossil fuels should be redressed by the courts. Lawyers from the federal justice department responded in a court document on Sept. 5 that the Montana case was too different to serve as a precedent in the Oregon case. 

“The claims in Held relied on provisions in the Montana state constitution that explicitly confer a fundamental right to a ‘clean and healthful environment’ and ‘environmental life support system,’” the justice department wrote. “That state constitution is not relevant here, and no analogous fundamental right exists under the U.S. Constitution.”

Representatives from the federal justice department did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Oregon lawyers blast decision

Julia Olsen, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, which is representing the Oregon youth, said the decision from the justice department shows President Biden’s administration, like Trump’s before him, will do whatever it takes to avoid a trial in the Oregon youth climate case. 

“What I think is a bit surprising is that supposedly the most climate friendly administration in U.S. history is denying what everyone else sees about the Held decision and the groundbreaking way that it defends kids rights,” she told the legal news publication Law360 on Sept. 6. Olsen and representatives from Our Children’s Trust declined interview requests from the Capital Chronicle, citing “limited plaintiff and attorney availability.”

In June, the plaintiffs in Oregon amended their case to save it from being tossed by a federal appeals court. The federal justice department is challenging the amendments, but the plaintiffs hope the case will eventually go to trial.

The ruling in Held V. Montana means state leaders must consider climate change when deciding whether to permit new or renewed fossil fuel projects, legal experts say.

The Montana youth also face more legal hurdles. The state’s attorney general, Austin Knudsen, has said his office will appeal the case, sending it to the Montana Supreme Court. 

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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Cameron Aalto

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