Climate Change Litigation: The Second Wave - Our Children's Trust Goes to Washington

Climate Change Litigation: The Second Wave - Our Children's Trust Goes to Washington

December 16, 2011 19:09
by J. Wylie Donald

2000 years ago all roads led to Rome.  Nowadays, as Our Children’s Trust recently found out, the road of a climate change lawsuit leads to Washington.  All are familiar with the path to Washington taken by Massachusetts v. EPA and American Electric Power v. Connecticut.  Last week a different path surfaced:  the trial court.  The District of the District of Columbia became the Washington venue of Alec L. v. Jackson when  the Northern District of California transferred the federal climate change suit instigated by Our Children’s Trust. 

Our Children’s Trust (OCT) is an Oregon public interest group that is quarterbacking a set of lawsuits and regulatory petitions seeking to reinvigorate federal and state regulation to combat climate change.  OCT burst on the climate change litigation scene last May with suits or petitions in all 50 states, invoking the public trust doctrine as available to protect the atmosphere – a new twist on an old doctrine. 

Besides a dozen lawsuits in state court, one was also brought in federal court in the Northern District of California (where another climate change lawsuit – Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil - was also filed).  Alec Loorz, a teen-aged environmental activist, and other youths, in company with Kids vs Global Warming and Wildearth Guardians, sued Lisa Jackson, Kenneth Salazar, Thomas Vilsack, Gary Locke, Steven Chu and Leon Panetta. You may recognize the defendants as the EPA Administrator and the Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Defense, respectively.

In the amended complaint, after explaining the plaintiffs’ circumstances (youths1 and an environmental group that will be harmed by the effects of climate change), the defendants’ alleged misfeasance (failure to act to restrain and reduce carbon dioxide emissions), the effects of climate change and the need to take action (among other reasons: “A failure to act soon will ensure the collapse of Earth’s natural systems resulting in a planet that is largely unfit for human life.”  Complaint ¶ 9.), a single cause of action is set forth. Plaintiffs allege, among other things:  

143. The United States government is a co-tenant sovereign trustee of the atmosphere and shares a duty with other co-tenant sovereigns, including Tribal Nations, to protect the atmosphere as the trust asset and prevent its waste or harm for the benefit of the people, including Plaintiffs and future generations of citizens

146. Defendants, and each of them, have wasted and failed to preserve and protect the atmosphere Public Trust asset, and have caused and will continue to cause imminent injuries as described above, from increased greenhouse gas emissions, global heating, and adverse impacts to natural and other resources.

147. Defendants, and each of them, have injured Plaintiffs by failing to protect the atmosphere as a Public Trust asset.

Needless to say, the government defendants don’t agree.  But instead of contesting the merits or challenging standing or asserting the political question defense in California, defendants sought something simple:  just a change of venue to Washington, D.C. Plaintiffs opposed.    

The district court sided with the defendants in a nine-page opinion that addressed the relevant considerations point by point.  As set out by the Supreme Court, transfer is appropriate based upon an ‘individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness.’  Opinion at 2 (citing Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 29 (1988)).  The relevant factors to be considered included:  (1) plaintiffs’ choice of forum, (2) convenience of the parties and witnesses, (3) ease of access to sources of proof; (4) local interest in the controversy; (5) familiarity of each forum with the  applicable law; and (6) relative congestion in each forum.  Opinion at 3 (citing Ctr. for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. 11-00831 JSW, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31688, at *18 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 17, 2011)).

Without delving into each of the factors, a fair summary of the court’s view might be:  because the effects of global warming are felt equally by every citizen and the decisions directing the government’s response were made in Washington, there was no compelling reason to keep this case in California and there were good reasons to transfer the case to the District of Columbia.  It is not a very satisfactory analysis.

While it is likely that climate change on the whole is bad, some will be advantaged by it (for example, farmers in Canada with longer growing seasons, or shippers that can use the Northwest Passage to the detriment of the Panama Canal); others will be disadvantaged (such as homeowners facing increased insurance premiums in hurricane-prone states, or asthmatics troubled by the particulate arising from more frequent wildfires caused by lack of rain).  To say that all will be affected equally seems plainly wrong. Nevertheless, the court made that point on several occasions to support its conclusion that the plaintiffs did not have an interest localized to the Northern District of California.  See Opinion at 4, 7, 8-9. 
Conversely, to find out why the District of the District of Columbia was the proper forum, one needed to look at who the defendants were:  heads of regulatory bodies who resided in or near Washington and whose allegedly improper decisions were likely made there as well.  Opinion at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  This reasoning suggests that a plaintiff seeking to avoid transfer should assert his or her claim against the local representative of the federal agency or department.  Of course that would likely be met with a motion to dismiss for failure to join an indispensable party because an agency's local representative would not be the one making the decisions about responding to climate change.  Which further suggests that under this factor, a suit about federal government policies against the federal government is always most appropriate in Washington.  Such a rule sounds like a bad idea.

But bad idea or not, the OCT plaintiffs are now in Washington.  Transfer has eliminated the possibility of an appeal to the relatively more liberal Ninth Circuit. Presumably, this was what inspired the motion to transfer. But it has also put the case into a more favorable news market offering better hours for prime time access to a decision.   

A hearing date is not set but the case will be taken seriously. Already the National Association of Manufacturers has weighed in on the side of the government.  On the plaintiffs' side, they have drummed up support from nearly two dozen law professors and scholars to explain the application of the public trust doctrine.

1It may only be us but the youth plaintiffs do not appear terribly sympathetic. By the tender age of 16 they have the suffered the misfortunes of going hiking on Icelandic glaciers, visiting Patagonia in the company of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and traveling to Africa.  Complaint ¶¶ 30, 37, 45.

Climate Change Effects | Climate Change Litigation | Regulation

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