Democrats rebuke Biden for fighting young climate activists in court

By Lesley Clark | 04/01/2024 06:20 AM EDT

DOJ is using “extraordinary and oppressive efforts” to stop the Juliana youth climate case, 30 lawmakers told a federal appeals court.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is leading an amicus brief from lawmakers in the Juliana v. United States youth climate litigation. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Congressional Democrats are chastising the Biden administration for trying to quash a long-running youth climate case against the U.S. government.

In a friend of the court brief, 29 Democratic members of Congress and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont called on the executive branch to “cease its extraordinary and oppressive efforts … to silence youth plaintiffs’ efforts to vindicate their Constitutional rights.”

The brief filed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes as President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice has asked federal courts to dismiss Juliana v. United States, arguing that the case would put a judge in the position of deciding policy that is better left to the executive and legislative branches.


But Democratic lawmakers argue that the administration is asking courts to “close their eyes” to what they said are violations of young people’s constitutional rights.

“As decades of evidence in the record show, the political branches predominantly choose short-term economic gains rather than face the difficult task of solving the issue of climate change head-on,” the brief says. “As a result, the problem has exponentially worsened.”

Led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the brief notes that DOJ has made an “unprecedented” seven requests for a writ of mandamus to prevent the case from proceeding to trial.

Their brief says the effort is “unique among the more than 40,000 cases the Department of Justice is defending” and that the Congressional Research Service has confirmed that the government has filed more petitions in Juliana than in any case of public record.

If DOJ’s latest request is granted, it would shut down Juliana before evidence is even heard, the lawmakers said.

DOJ in January asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon to stop considering Juliana, arguing that the court’s December decision to revive the case violates a prior order from the 9th Circuit. The federal appeals court reluctantly rejected the Juliana challengers’ claims four years ago.

The Biden administration further broadened its opposition to Juliana in February, petitioning the 9th Circuit to enforce its 2020 decision and dismiss the case in its entirety. Our Children’s Trust filed a response to the petition — known as a writ of mandamus — on March 21.

‘The court must step in’

First filed in 2015 by 21 young people, Juliana seeks to force the federal government to phase out fossil fuels and has drawn opposition from the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.

After years of procedural wrangling, the case had been approaching trial in Oregon District Court in 2018 when the Supreme Court granted an emergency request from the Trump administration to stop the proceedings.

Juliana later landed before the 9th Circuit, which decided in 2020 that although judges on the panel were sympathetic to the young people, courts were not the right venue to resolve their claims. Instead of bringing their case up to the Supreme Court, Our Children’s Trust successfully sought permission from the Oregon District Court to narrow their case and try again.

DOJ has warned that it is not in the public’s interest to keep the case moving as the federal government seeks to stop it.

Democratic lawmakers argued in their amicus brief that young people are among the most vulnerable but are politically powerless.

Because the executive and legislative branches “have failed in their responsibility to curtail the effects of the climate crisis,” the brief says, “the Court must step in and assess the constitutionality of the conduct of its coequal branches and protect these children’s rights to life, liberty, and property.”

Merkley, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Schakowsky, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Innovation, Data, and Commerce, last July introduced legislation that seeks to bolster Juliana. The resolution calls on the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions to protect children from the effects of global warming.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of lawmakers who signed on to the amicus brief and incorrectly stated that Our Children’s Trust had not responded to the writ of mandamus.