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Justices refuse to block climate-change trial

Tonight the Supreme Court declined to intervene to block the trial in a lawsuit filed by a group of children and teenagers who have asked a federal district court in Oregon to order the federal government to prepare and put in place a plan to phase out fossil-fuel emissions. Although the justices’ ruling formally cleared the way for a trial in the case to go forward, the court stressed that the government may be able to get the relief that it is seeking in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and it did not foreclose the possibility that the government could return to the Supreme Court yet again.

This afternoon’s order was the latest chapter in the climate-change lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2015, during the Obama administration. The plaintiffs contend that the federal government’s conduct has led to a “dangerous climate system,” in conflict with their constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”

The federal government first came to the Supreme Court in the case last summer, asking the justices to block discovery and a trial until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit could rule on the government’s request to have the case dismissed or, at the very least, put on hold. But the justices declined to step in, describing the government’s request as “premature.” At the same time, the justices acknowledged that the plaintiffs’ claims are “striking” and that there are “substantial grounds for difference of opinion” on whether those claims belong in court at all; they also emphasized that the district court should “take these concerns into account in assessing the burdens of discovery and trial, as well as the desirability of a prompt ruling on” other motions that the government had filed seeking dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims.

With a trial looming, the government returned to the Supreme Court again last week, complaining that the district court had declined to “meaningfully narrow” the scope of the case. It asked the justices to either end the lawsuit altogether or, at a minimum, review the district court’s rulings allowing the case to go forward. Chief Justice John Roberts, who at the time handled emergency requests from the geographic area that includes Oregon, agreed to put discovery and the trial on hold temporarily to give the plaintiffs an opportunity to respond to the government’s application.

In their response, the plaintiffs urged the justices to allow the trial to go forward. They noted that most pretrial fact-finding had already been completed, with the only remaining discovery “extremely limited.” The only harm that the government has cited to justify putting the trial on hold, the plaintiffs argued, is that it would otherwise be required to “participate in the normal process of trial and await appellate consideration until after final judgment” – which, in the plaintiffs’ view, is an “ordinary” burden rather than the kind of irreparable harm necessitating emergency relief. By contrast, they suggested, stopping the trial now “will disrupt the integrity of the judiciary’s role as a check on the political branches and will irreparably harm these children.” Indeed, the plaintiffs asserted, discovery and a trial are essential because the district court can’t decide the questions presented by their lawsuit, involving the plaintiffs’ legal right to bring the lawsuit and the allocation of power between the different branches of government, until the facts have been better developed.

In a reply brief, the federal government pushed back, telling the justices that it had made every possible effort in the lower courts to avoid reaching this point, but had been unsuccessful. The government emphasized that what the plaintiffs are asking the federal courts to do is extraordinary, “nothing less than a complete transformation of the American energy system – including the abandonment of fossil fuels.” Such a request, the government continued, “has no place in federal court,” so that granting the government a reprieve from the upcoming trial would “preserve the judiciary’s essential role under the Constitution.”

The government added that, contrary to the plaintiffs’ assurances, the prospect winning on appeal after an “extensive” trial had already taken place would provide little comfort to the government, because of the enormous amount of resources that would have to be devoted to pretrial preparations and the trial itself.

In an unsigned three-page order issued tonight, the Supreme Court explained that it would block the proceedings in the district court only if the government were likely to prevail on its request for an order of the Supreme Court, in particular, requiring the district court to dismiss the case. But the government cannot meet that standard, the justices continued, because it may be able to get the relief that it is seeking in the 9th Circuit. The court acknowledged that the 9th Circuit has twice turned down requests from the government to order the district court to dismiss the case, but it reasoned that the 9th Circuit did so because of the prospect that the plaintiffs’ claims against the government might eventually be dismissed through more conventional avenues. The justices concluded that those “reasons are, to a large extent, no longer pertinent” with a 50-day trial – which had been scheduled for October 29 – looming.

The court therefore denied the federal government’s request to keep the trial on hold “without prejudice” – that is, leaving open the possibility that the dispute could return to the Supreme Court again. The justices’ earlier order putting the trial on hold temporarily, to give them time to consider the government’s request, is terminated. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch indicated that they would have granted the government’s request.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Justices refuse to block climate-change trial, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 2, 2018, 7:48 PM),