Oregon kids' climate change lawsuit argued at David Douglas
The Oregon Supreme Court made a road trip to east Portland, offering students a firsthand look at an ongoing lawsuit — filed by fellow kids — that could require Oregon to more forcefully fight climate change.
More than 400 students packed the David Douglas High School auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 13, with some traveling from West Linn and Catlin Gabel, in order to hear oral arguments in Chernaik v. Brown.
The suit, first filed in 2011, argues that Oregon has a responsibility to spend money to protect the atmosphere and other natural resources from the effects of rising temperatures as a provision of the Public Trust doctrine, which typically is applied only to rivers.
"The record is undisputed that climate change is already impacting the navigable waterways of the state," said counsel for the plaintiff Courtney Johnson.
The suit targets Gov. Kate Brown, who along with other Democrats made an ultimately unsuccessful effort to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the statehouse earlier this year. Her lawyer argued that judicial fiat is an inappropriate way to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
"The way that the state does more to combat climate change is by passing laws," said Brown's counsel, Carson Whitehead. Otherwise, "it's encroachment."
Judges in Lane County and at the State Appeals Court have sided with Gov. Brown and rejected the suit's argument on multiple occasions, leading to several appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court's voluntary decision to hear the case.
The seven judges on stage made no decision, but pushed back on both lawyers' half-hour-long arguments, asking what would be an appropriate decision for the court if the Willamette River were, hypothetically, suddenly blocked by a natural disaster or human-made wall.
Johnson said it would be an impetus to act: "When the state is abdicating its role here, that is the same as causing substantial impairment."
Whitehead again called for an electoral solution, though he admitted to the gravity of the situation. "Climate change is a huge problem," he said, "in no small part because our economy has been carbon based for a long, long time, and it remains so."
Though the day lacked the booming oratory of legal dramas — and incongruous congas remained firmly planted in the orchestra pit — many students were clearly enthralled.
Mock Trial participant and David Douglas senior Annabelle Sukin praised the learning experience, noting how the judges' questioning pushed the lawyers to explain their rhetoric.
"Justice and equality throughout argument are really important," Sukin said. "Socratic arguments and philosophical debates are more prominent in my classrooms, especially here at Douglas."
Visitors to the school campus were greeted by environmental activists holding a silent vigil supporting the lawsuit. One of the protesters, Gary Houser, explained their mission: "We feel climate disruption is an extremely serious threat to the future of life on this planet."
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