January 25, 2016, Orlando, Florida – Attorney Rob Williams, of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ), has written an amicus brief in support of youth who are bringing a constitutional claim against the federal government, in the case of Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana; Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh M., through his Guardian Tamara Roske-Martinez; et al. Plaintiffs v. the United States of America; Barack Obama, in his official capacity as President of the United States; et al., Federal Defendants.
The 21 young plaintiffs – through the non-profit organization, Our Children’s Trust -- claim that the government is denying their constitutional due process rights by neglecting its obligation under the constitutional reserved powers doctrine, in conjunction with the public trust doctrine, to preserve the atmosphere for the welfare of future generations. The plaintiffs claim that the atmosphere is being polluted by carbon emissions resulting from production by the fossil fuel industry. “The public trust doctrine imposes sovereign duties on the federal government to protect the atmosphere necessary for human survival,” the brief reads.
The case is to be brought in federal district court in Eugene, Oregon – one of multiple cases throughout the United States making this claim under the doctrine of public trust.
The CEJ has written the amicus brief on behalf of the Global Catholic Climate Movement – representing 250 Catholic organizations and thousands of individuals – and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), made up of about 1,400 leaders of about 80 percent of the women religious in the United States.
Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, founder and director of CEJ, explained that she had been approached in the fall and asked if her organization could write the amicus brief with a focus on the moral perspective of protecting the commons as set forth in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si. In this encyclical, Pope Francis focuses on a number of topics, including the “sacred trust” to preserve our natural resources for future generations. The brief states that "natural resources" are not to be valued only in terms of their benefits to humankind. "Pope Francis warns against thinking of different species and ecological systems as 'merely potential resources' to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves."
Sister Pat, an attorney, said the amicus brief is an effort to give the judge some moral arguments to bolster his decision to try a case based on the asserted rights of future generations. The defendants in the Eugene, Oregon case – which include fossil fuel corporations as well as the U.S. government – are seeking to dismiss the case, and a hearing on that request is scheduled for March 9. Just the fact that the judge has scheduled a hearing on this request rather than dismissing the case outright is a positive sign, Sister Pat said.
She said these Children's Trust cases are a strategic means to transform the current legal system. The cases brought forth by Our Children’s Trust are meant to secure the rights of youth and future generations, who will suffer the consequences of global climate change in their lifetimes. But CEJ hopes to take these efforts a step further: to “create laws that recognize and protect nature’s rights, such as the atmosphere, to exist and be healthy.”
Sister Pat emphasized the connection between human beings and nature: all of life on the planet is interconnected. Atmosphere, soil, and water that are healthy will also be healthy for human beings. All of creation has the right to healthy conditions that will enable it to flourish. The need to act in environmental issues is urgent, for the sake of all life forms, she said, quoting Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org: "The laws of physics wait for no one."
View these resources for further background on the case in Eugene, Oregon, and on the amicus brief:
- EcoWatch – “Pope Francis Part of Amicus Brief Filed in Support of Teen’s Landmark Climate Change Lawsuit”
- Columbia Law School Climate Law Blog – “Lawsuit Alleges that U.S. Government Violated Constitutional Rights of America’s Youth by Promoting the Development and Use of Fossil Fuels"
- Moyers & Company – “Kids Suing Government for Climate Action Attract Influential Allies and Opponents”
- Climate Change News – “Catholics back children’s climate lawsuit against US government”
Feature photo: Sister Pat Siemen, OP, in Ecuador in January 2014 for the Global Summit on the Rights of Nature