U.S. Justice Department Claims Oregon Climate Lawsuit Distinct from Montana Case, Despite Similar Youth-Led Legal Efforts

WASHINGTON — In a significant legal battle spanning nearly a decade, a group of young Oregon plaintiffs has encountered a setback in their fight against the U.S. government over climate change. Officials from the Usc Justice Department have recently stated that a notable legal victory in Montana will not influence the Oregon youth climate lawsuit, which contends that federal inaction on climate change violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

The case, known as Juliana v. United the USA, was initiated in 2015 when the plaintiffs, then aged between 8 and 18, sued the government in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon. They argue that the government’s environmental policies and its promotion of the fossil fuel industry are threatening their future and violating their constitutional rights.

This stance was seemingly bolstered by a recent decision on August 14 in Held v. Montana, where a Montana district court judge found that state officials had breached the state constitution by failing to consider climate change impacts in energy project permits. This ruling recognized the rights of 16 young plaintiffs to a clean and healthy environment — a right explicitly stated in Montana’s constitution.

However, in a recent court filing, U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued that the Held decision is inapplicable to the Oregon case. They noted that the claims in Montana were based on specific state constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment” which do not have equivalents under the U.S. Constitution.

Julia Olsen, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, which represents the Oregon youth, expressed disappointment over the federal response. Olsen criticized the Biden administration for continuing what she perceives as the previous administration’s tactics to avoid trial. In an interview with Law360 on September 6, Olsen highlighted the irony of the perceived inaction from an administration that touts itself as the most climate-friendly in U.S. history.

The frustration stems from the Oregon plaintiffs’ long wait to have their day in court, a delay exacerbated by various legal challenges and amendments to the case aimed at keeping it alive. In June, the case was amended to adapt to concerns raised by a federal appeals court, in hopes of pushing it toward a trial.

Meanwhile, the Montana ruling has set a precedent within the state that requires officials to account for climate change when issuing permits for new or renewed fossil-fuel projects. However, this decision too faces challenges, as Montana’s attorney general, Austin Knudsen, announced plans to appeal the ruling, which will bring the case before the Montana Supreme Court.

Legal experts note that while the Montana case offers a glimmer of hope for environmental rights at the state level, the federal courts remain a challenging arena for asserting environmental protection through constitutional claims. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the environmental rights that some state constitutions, like Montana’s, provide.

The ongoing legal battles highlight the broader national struggle over climate policy and the role of the judicial system in addressing environmental issues. As these young plaintiffs in Oregon press on, their case continues to symbolize the growing demand for governmental accountability on climate action in the face of increasing environmental challenges.