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Supreme Court Denies DOJ Effort to Derail Young People’s Climate Change Lawsuit

In what court watchers already consider a landmark case in which young people are suing the federal government for stronger climate change actions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied the Trump administration's request to block the lawsuit from moving forward.

As a result, the discovery process moves forward in the case that was filed in a federal district court in Oregon three years ago with the help of climate change activist and Columbia University adjunct professor James Hansen, whose granddaughter is one of 21 plaintiffs. Hansen from 1981 to 2013 headed the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He has been a long-time climate change advocate. 

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) turned to the Supreme Court earlier in July after both the Oregon court and San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit turned down the Trump administration’s efforts to halt the case, which is Juliana, et al. v. United States of America, et al.

"The government's request for relief is premature and is denied without prejudice," the Supreme Court said in a High Court notice. "The breadth of respondents' claims is striking, however, and the justiciability of those claims presents substantial grounds for difference of opinion."

The Justices also encouraged the district court in Oregon to "take these concerns into account" in assessing prospects of discovery and a trial, and the federal government's pending motions to halt the process.

DOJ attorneys sent their latest request to retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, who referred the case to the full nine-member court. How each justice voted regarding the request was not revealed.

Hansen in June wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe urging that approaches to climate change be altered, and he cited the power of young peoples' lawsuits.

"The chances of winning lawsuits grow as incontrovertible evidence of climate change grows," he wrote. "The judiciary is less subject to bribery from the fossil fuel industry than are other branches of government."

While Hansen has argued that the fossil fuel industry must be transformed into a "clean energy industry" to address climate issues, the federal government has argued that lawsuits like the young peoples' case is a misguided attempt to redirect federal environmental and energy policies through the courts rather than through the political process where they have historically been handled.

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