The Supreme Court declined to intervene today in a lawsuit filed by a group of 21 children and teenagers who allege that they have a constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” The federal government had asked the justices to put discovery and a trial, currently scheduled for late October, on hold until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit can rule on the government’s petition asking the appeals court to direct a federal district court to dismiss the case or, at a minimum, to stay discovery and the trial. But even as they stayed out of the dispute for now, the justices expressed some skepticism about the sweeping nature of the plaintiffs’ claims.
In the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2015 against the Obama administration, the group contends that the federal government’s actions are causing a “dangerous climate system,” and it seeks (among other things) an order that would require the government to prepare and implement a remedial plan to phase out the use of CO2 emissions. The district court has allowed the lawsuit to go forward, and the 9th Circuit has thus far refused to step in.
On July 17, the federal government, in a brief signed by U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, asked the Supreme Court to intervene. Francisco told the justices that, if either the court of appeals or the Supreme Court does not step in, the government “will be forced to participate in a highly compacted period of discovery and trial preparation followed by a 50-day trial, all of which will itself violate bedrock limitations on agency decisionmaking and the judicial process imposed by” federal law and the separation of powers. Moreover, Francisco added, because the plaintiffs are arguing that they have been harmed by “the cumulative effects of CO2 emissions from every source in the world over decades,” there would be no real harm from waiting a short time for the 9th Circuit to rule.
This afternoon the Supreme Court rejected the government’s request, calling it “premature.” But the court left open the possibility that the government could return with a similar request at a later stage in the proceedings. It also described the “breadth” of the plaintiffs’ claims as “striking,” observing that there are “substantial grounds for difference of opinion” on whether those claims belong in court at all. The justices instructed the federal district court to “take these concerns into account in assessing the burdens of discovery and trial, as well as the desirability of a prompt ruling on the” federal government’s other pending motions, which could result in dismissal of some or all of the plaintiffs’ claims.