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Determining whether the political question doctrine requires abstention calls on a court to balance profoundly important interests. On the one hand, the separation of powers is fundamental to our system of government. It is a basic principle of our constitutional scheme that one branch of the government may not intrude upon the central prerogatives of another. On the other hand, the decision to deny access to judicial relief should never be made lightly, because federal courts have the power, and ordinarily the obligation, to decide cases and controversies properly presented to them. Accordingly, a court cannot simply err on the side of declining to exercise jurisdiction when it fears a political question may exist; it must instead diligently map the precise limits of jurisdiction.
Plaintiffs in this civil rights action are a group of young people between the ages of eight and nineteen ("youth plaintiffs"); Earth Guardians, an association of young environmental activists; and Dr. James Hansen, acting as guardian for future generations. Plaintiffs filed this action against defendants, the United States, President Barack Obama, and numerous executive agencies. Plaintiffs allege defendants have known for more than fifty years that the carbon dioxide ("CO2") produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate system in a way that would "significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millenia." Despite that knowledge, plaintiffs assert defendants, "by their exercise of sovereign authority over our country's atmosphere and fossil fuel resources, . . . permitted, encouraged, and otherwise enabled continued exploitation, production, and combustion of fossil fuels . . . deliberately allowing atmospheric CO2 concentrations to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history." Although many different entities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, plaintiffs aver defendants bear "a higher degree of responsibility than any other individual, entity, or country" for exposing plaintiffs to the dangers of climate change. Plaintiffs argue defendants' actions violate their substantive due process rights to life, liberty, and property, and that defendants have violated their obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust for the people and for future generations. Plaintiffs assert there is a very short window in which defendants could act to phase out fossil fuel exploitation and avert environmental catastrophe. They seek (1) a declaration finding their constitutional and public trust rights have been violated and (2) an order enjoining defendants from violating those rights and directing defendants to develop a plan to reduce CO2 emissions.
May the court direct defendants to change their policy without running afoul of the separation of powers doctrine?
The court held that the suit did not present a non-justiciable political question because the court could issue the requested declaratory relief without violating separation of powers, the requested relief was consistent with international climate change commitments, and whether the plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated was squarely within the judiciary's purview. The plaintiffs had standing because they alleged a concrete and redressable injury caused by the defendants' actions. The plaintiffs adequately alleged a violation of their substantive due process rights and violation of the defendants' obligation to hold certain natural resources in trust.