Juliana v. United States: The Kids’ Climate Change Case

February 4, 2020

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit released a decision on January 17th, 2020 in the interesting and widely-followed climate change case, Juliana v. United States.[1] The court found a basis for the climate case based on the extensive evidence record submitted by the Plaintiffs and their amici, sympathized with the experiences of the multiple young Plaintiffs, and recognized climate change as a serious threat.  However, the court determined that the Plaintiffs had taken the improbable position of challenging the policies of the federal government as a whole.

The Plaintiffs had placed blame on several Administrations (not just the current Administration), as well as attributing blame to an equally culpable Congress, for advancing laws and policies favorable to those industries and markets thought to be most causal of climate change. However, the breadth of the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit was also its downfall, and in a 2 – 1 decision, the appellate court panel held that this was a matter too broad and therefore not suited for federal judges to intervene. The court held, rather, that this issue is one best suited for the political branches: the Legislative and the Executive.[2]

To provide some background, this case began in August 2015 (during the Obama Administration) when a group of 21 young Plaintiffs (then ages 8 to 19) brought this lawsuit against the federal government in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon.[3] The Plaintiffs alleged multiple violations by the federal government, including violations of: the Plaintiffs’ substantive rights under the Due Process Clause and of equal protection, both under the Fifth Amendment; the Plaintiffs’ rights under the Ninth Amendment; and the Public Trust Doctrine.[4]

The Plaintiffs had sought an injunction ordering the federal government to implement a climate change plan in the interest of ensuring that these young people and our future generations inherit a livable environment, not one ravaged by the potential effects of climate change. The federal district court judge had permitted the case to go forward and had been preparing for trial in 2019. However, the case was subjected to several appellate procedural reviews, including multiple brief stops at the United States Supreme Court, which did not halt the case in its early stages. In the end, the Ninth Circuit found the legal issues to be a bridge too far and dismissed the case before it got to trial because the courts are unable to properly redress the claims of the Plaintiffs.

The Juliana case was groundbreaking because the Plaintiffs were making broad and extensive claims of climate mismanagement by the federal government. The Plaintiffs here tried to establish “a substantive constitutional right to a ‘climate system capable of sustaining human life.’”[5]  The case received widespread recognition in the news media because of the unique claims made by the Plaintiffs related to climate change, and their bold challenge to the federal government to implement more stringent climate change prevention measures. It was even the subject of two extended segments on 60 Minutes[6], the highly-rated and well-regarded television news magazine.

While the case made for an inspiring story, it was always going to be an arduous and unlikely legal battle. Nonetheless, the case has created an extensive legal record of the basis of climate change and its potentially destructive consequences. This record will make it more difficult for the legislature, the executive branch, and administrative agencies, to ignore or disregard when setting their agendas and policies. And maybe that was the Plaintiffs’ goal all along.


[1] Juliana v. United States of America, No. 18-36082, 2020 WL 254149 (9th Cir. 2020). District Court No. 6:15-cv-01517-TC
[2] See Juliana v. U.S., 2020 WL 254149, at 3
[3] See Id.
[4] See Id. at 4.
[5] See Id. at 6.
[6] See CBS News – 60 Minutes, reporting by Steve Kroft:  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/juliana-versus-united-states-climate-change-lawsuit-60-minutes-2019-06-23/, 6/23/19; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/juliana-versus-united-states-the-climate-change-lawsuit-that-could-stop-the-u-s-government-from-supporting-fossil-fuels-60-minutes/, 3/3/19.

Sean Frye
Sean Frye