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Oregon Supreme Court rules against young plaintiffs in climate suit

The ruling issued on Thursday swung in favor of Governor Kate Brown and the state of Oregon, defendants in the case.

Posted: Oct 22, 2020 11:13 AM
Updated: Oct 22, 2020 11:14 AM

SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled against a pair of young plaintiffs who sued the state and Governor of Oregon for allegedly failing to address climate change. The ruling marks a penultimate stage in the lawsuit, which has been ongoing since 2011.

Originally filed against then-Governor John Kitzhaber and his administration, the case that eventually became Chernaik v. Brown made its way to the state Supreme Court last year after a long series of arguments, rulings, and appeals.

The plaintiffs argued that the "public trust doctrine," which covers the state's responsibility to steward and protect certain natural resources, includes the atmosphere — alleging that Oregon's failure to comprehensively address climate change represents a betrayal of the public trust.

The Oregon Supreme Court's opinion, issued on Wednesday, rejected the plaintiffs' argument for an expanded definition of the public trust — affirming the earlier decision by the Court of Appeals and sending the case back to the circuit court for judgment.

"The public trust doctrine in Oregon currently encompasses submerged and submersible lands underlying navigable waters and the navigable waters themselves," Justice Lynn Nakamato wrote in the majority opinion. "We do not foreclose the possibility that the doctrine could expand to include other resources in the future, but the test that plaintiffs urge us to adopt sweeps too broadly."

Chief Justice Martha Walters dissented from the majority opinion, writing that "the time is now" for an expansion of the public trust doctrine.

"All parties to this case, including the state, agree that climate change 'is causing, and will continue to cause, harm to our planet and the State of Oregon,'" Justice Walters wrote. "All parties to this case, including plaintiffs, agree that the legislative and executive branches of our state government have taken steps to address and prevent that harm. I conclude that the judicial branch also has a role to play: This court can and should determine the law that governs the other two branches as they undertake their essential work."

Though Governor Kate Brown and state officials were defendants in the case — and ultimately successful in arguing against the state's responsibility for climate change impacts — Brown said in a statement issued on Wednesday that she "agrees" with the plaintiffs and other young climate change activists who argue for action.

“The unprecedented wildfires that raged across the West this year should have been a wake-up call for everyone: we need to be taking impactful steps immediately to address climate change," Brown said. "That’s why I took executive action in the spring to reduce Oregon’s carbon emissions, after Republican legislators walked out two years in a row to block climate action legislation."

“To all of Oregon’s young people: If you’re frustrated by the speed at which your government is addressing the most urgent crisis of this generation and the next, know that I am too," Brown continued. "There is a place where Oregonians can make their voices heard –– the ballot box. If you care about climate change, if you care about the future of this planet, if you want future generations to have clean air and clean water, then please, vote.”

One of the plaintiffs in the Chernaik v. Brown case, 24-year-old Kelsey Juliana, is also the named plaintiff in a similar high-profile climate suit against the U.S. government. That case is currently at the Ninth Curcuit Court of Appeals, awaiting a decision on a rehearing.

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