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Oregon Supreme Court Rules Against Teens In State Climate Lawsuit


The Oregon Supreme Court Thursday dealt a blow to a state climate lawsuit filed in 2011 by two young people in Eugene.

Kelsey Juliana and Ollie Chernaik were teens when they first filed the lawsuit in Lane County Circuit Court. Nine years later, the Oregon Supreme Court issued a divided ruling that denies their claims that natural resources—water, wildlife and the atmosphere, are protected by the public trust doctrine.   

In Chernaik v. Brown the young people claimed climate change is endangering their well-being and future, and that the public trust doctrine requires the state to protect natural resources.

But the Oregon Supreme Court ruling upheld a January 2019 decision by the Oregon Court of appeals against the plaintiffs. Justice Lynn R. Nakamoto wrote the opinion.

“Although  the  public trust is capable of expanding to include more natural resources, we do not extend the doctrine to encompass other  natural  resources  at  this  time.” Nakamoto said. “We also decline,  in  this case, to adopt plaintiffs’ position that, under the public trust doctrine, the state has the same fiduciary duties that a trustee of a common-law private trust would have, such as a duty to prevent substantial impairment of trust resources. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals, which vacated the judgment of the circuit court, and remand the case to the circuit court to enter a judgment consistent with this opinion.”

Chief Justice Martha Walters wrote the dissenting opinon. In regards to expanding the public trust doctrine…

“As  I  see  it,  however,  the  time  is  now.” Walters said.  “This  court  already has recognized the state’s duty to protect and pre-serve the natural resources to which the public trust doc-trine applies and should declare that that duty exists; the reasons the majority gives for refusing to do so are not con-vincingPlaintiff Kelsey Juliana said Thursday morning that the ruling “shook her”.

In a news release, Our Children’s Trust, which represents the plaintiffs, said Justice Walter’s dissenting opinion “left the door open to future claims.”

“The dissenting opinion will one day be the majority opinion. But our climate, our waters, and our drying forests do not have years to wait. Children do not have years to wait. We are considering a petition for rehearing in light of the majority’s mischaracterization of our case and the errors of law addressed by the Chief Justice,” said Courtney Johnson, who represents the plaintiffs.

The case is similar to a federal lawsuit brought by 21 young people that’s pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Copyright 2020 KLCC.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s former News Director. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000. After reporting for the Northwest News Network and KAZU, Rachael returned to KLCC in 2007 as Morning Edition host and a general assignment reporter covering politics, the environment, education, and the arts. She was hired as KLCC News Director in 2018. Rachael departed KLCC in June, 2022.
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