On Friday, a court in Virginia tossed out a lawsuit brought by 13 youths who say the state’s approval of fossil fuel projects is contributing to global warming and breaching their constitutional rights. Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based public interest law organization, filed a lawsuit asking the court to strike down provisions of the Virginia Gas and Oil Act as unconstitutional. The plaintiffs, who are between the ages of 10 and 19, claim that the state’s reliance on and promotion of fossil fuels violates their rights.
The lawsuit was filed against the state of Virginia, but Judge Clarence Jenkins Jr. of the Richmond Circuit Court ruled in favor of the state, dismissing the case on the grounds that sovereign immunity bars the complaint. A state cannot be sued without the permission of the state, according to this legal principle. The state asserted that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by sovereign immunity because they attempted to prevent the state from providing permits for fossil fuel infrastructure and otherwise interfered with the state’s governmental activities. The court did not make a determination about the constitutionality of the plaintiffs’ claims.
Our Children’s Trust has brought similar suits in five other jurisdictions. Both the Hawaii and Utah cases are still in their preliminary stages, while the Montana case is set to go to trial in 2019. After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided against the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in Oregon in 2015, the case is still active in the courts. Since then, they have requested to file a narrower amended complaint and are now waiting for a response.
Judge Jenkins made a ruling on the case and dismissed it from the bench, barring any future filings in the case. Their lawyer, Nathan Bellinger, has stated that an appeal to the state Court of Appeals will be filed as soon as possible. A jury comprised of ten plaintiffs and their parents sat in court to hear Bellinger’s claim that the state is deliberately contributing to the climate problem by maintaining its dependence on fossil fuels as its primary energy source and contaminating the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. He pleaded with the court to hear the case.
Asthma and heat fatigue are only two of the ailments the lawsuit claims have been exacerbated by global warming. According to Bellinger, tick populations have grown as a result of climate change, and four of the plaintiffs have become unwell as a result of being bitten by ticks. The suit also alleges that Virginia has broken its duty to protect particular natural resources, known as the “public trust doctrine.”
Bellinger stated in court that the kids of Virginia were “courageous” for “coming to the judiciary to safeguard their fundamental rights.” Bellinger claims that the Virginia case is the first to not ask for an injunction to force the state to perform specific activities or provide a corrective action plan. Instead, it simply sought a determination that the continuation of permitting fossil fuel projects constituted a violation of the plaintiffs’ rights.
However, state prosecutors contended that plaintiffs are trying to impose their preferred energy and environmental policies on the state, usurping the function of the state legislature. According to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sanford, “simply put, this matter belongs two blocks over in the General Assembly and not before this court.”
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Several of the plaintiffs attended a news conference after the hearing when they addressed the media while holding a giant banner that said, “Climate Justice in our Courts NOW!” Layla H., an 18-year-old named in the complaint, claims that she has suffered from heat exhaustion and flooding as a direct result of global warming. The lawsuit claims that in 2018, “an intense precipitation event” caused the basement of her family’s home to flood, leading to water damage and mold development that required nearly $17,000 in repairs.
The inaction of state officials has gotten old, she said. Each and every red flag has been raised, but to no avail,” she lamented. We will act immediately on necessary matters.
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