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9th Circuit Court ‘reluctantly’ throws out kids' climate change lawsuit for lack of standing

'The plaintiffs' case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large'

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

A federal appeals court has "reluctantly" dismissed a lawsuit originally brought by a group of kids and teens meant to force the government to take action on addressing climate change.

In a 2-1 majority ruling issued Friday, a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the 21 plaintiffs in the case of Juliana v. United States did not have the proper legal standing to pursue their climate-related grievances through a federal court, because it's not the judicial branch's job to make the kinds of policy changes they're asking for in the lawsuit.

"The plaintiffs have made a compelling case that action is needed; it will be increasingly difficult in light of that record for the political branches to deny that climate change is occurring, that the government has had a role in causing it, and that our elected officials have a moral responsibility to seek solutions," the ruling says. "We reluctantly conclude, however, that the plaintiffs' case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large, the latter of which can change the composition of the political branches through the ballot box. That the other branches may have abdicated their responsibility to remediate the problem does not confer on [federal] courts, no matter how well-intentioned, the ability to step into their shoes."

In her dissent, Judge Josephine Staton accused both her colleagues and the government for acknowledging the existence of a problem and yet doing nothing in response.

"It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses," Straton wrote. "Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation."

The lawsuit was originally brought against President Barack Obama and several other government officials in 2015 by a group of 21 kids and teenagers ranging in age from 8 to 19 at the time. The plaintiffs argued that the government had violated their rights to a stable climate that can sustain life.

In 2016, a federal judge allowed the matter to proceed, writing, "I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society."

In a legal brief filed in February, the Department of Justice not only challenged the lawsuit's legal standing, but also its core arguments about whether or not constitutional climate rights exist.

"A right to a 'climate system capable of sustaining human life' is simply nothing like any fundamental right ever recognized by the Supreme Court," the government said, noting that such rights often involve personal decisions. "The state of the climate, however, is a public and generalized issue having no connection to personal liberty or personal privacy."

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