Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Judicial Review, Litigation, Sustainability

Juliana v. US: Seeking Accountability for the Climate Crisis

Jordan Joachim-James (she/her)

ELR Staffer ’24

Following the dismissal of the infamous Juliana v. US case, plaintiffs and supporters alike continue to fight for their constitutional right to life, liberty, and property under the Due Process Clause by seeking accountability for government action causing climate change. Plaintiffs have been unsuccessful because it is unclear who should be held accountable. The quest for accountability and action continues, and a successful suit is possible if it is framed the right way, presented to the right audience, and designed with enough awareness of the issue.

Juliana was first brought in 2015 by 21 young people between the ages of 8 and 19, arguing that via the federal government’s actions in things such as energy services, which increase climate change despite the awareness of the impacts, the government violated their right “to a climate system capable to sustaining human life” under the Due Process Clause. After much litigation, the case finally ended in 2020 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the issue of climate change resolution is out of the court’s reach. Despite finding a thorough analysis of the facts and evidence presented by the plaintiffs that their rights have indeed been affected, Judge Hurwitz decided that redress in this situation is beyond a court’s Constitutional power to provide. The court looks to other branches to provide the sought relief: executive or legislative action to combat man-made climate change. Judge Stanton dissented, saying that “… the mere fact that this suit cannot alone halt climate change does not mean that is present no claim suitable for judicial resolution.” Stanton’s argument posits that both branches have not done enough to combat the problem. As the plaintiffs continue to motion for amendments to their complaint, they also seem to be reconsidering their framing. For example, they have recently started using the right-to-life principle in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization as a point of comparison hoping that since the court protected the life of the fetus, they would want to protect human life by protecting their habitat: Earth.

Seeing the judicial branch’s reluctance to address this specific case, the plaintiffs hope for action from the more partisan government branches. The importance of climate change in politics fluctuates even though its effects continue to increase consistently and visibly. Some administrations choose to act, while others prefer to ignore the impact of climate change. The Juliana case via Our Children’s Trust attempted to solicit action from the executive branch via the Biden Administration and the Department of Justice’s initiation of settlement discussions. The plaintiffs assume that this branch would be willing to work with the plaintiffs to find a resolution, an assumption likely rooted in Biden’s environmental promises and his political affiliation. The president’s political party likely indicates their intention to address climate change. Typically, Republican presidents avoid acting against climate change and Democratic presidents work to combat climate change. The Trump Administration was reluctant to acknowledge that climate change is a legitimate issue and often undermined, and even exacerbated, the problems via their decision to roll back action to fight climate change.  The Juliana case had a significant impact on the legislative branch, as the House and Senate introduced resolutions acknowledging climate change and its effects on citizens following inspiration from the Juliana plaintiffs’ arguments.

Unsurprisingly, States are divided in their response to this landmark case. After Judge Aiken ordered a settlement conference between the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice, several states chose to act as either intervenors to prevent a settlement in order to protect state action (which they saw as threatened by the presidency), or as supporters of the plaintiffs by acknowledging the impacts of climate change (such as the health and supply chain effects on their citizens). However, with these meetings coming to no avail, the divide between the states shows the stark conflict of determining who should be held accountable for the violation of these rights.

Despite the Juliana plaintiffs’ lack of success, there is no doubt that they have sparked a conversation. More suits brought by young people to fight climate change have arisen. The most high profile was Held v. Montana, where 16 young people are fighting for their Constitutional right to a good environment by combatting state actions that accelerate climate change. This case is slated to go to trial next year and takes the mission of Juliana to a new level. In Virginia, another group of plaintiffs has followed Juliana’s lead and is garnering attention. Additionally, the Juliana plaintiffs are the subject of the Netflix documentary Youth v. Gov. The actions of the Juliana plaintiffs have accelerated the climate change conversation, pushing people to hold the government responsible for their actions in exacerbating the climate crisis, and setting the stage for the right case to be handled by the court.