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The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that disputes involving political questions lie outside of the U.S. Const. art. III jurisdiction of federal courts. The political question doctrine is a species of the separation of powers doctrine and provides that certain questions are political as opposed to legal, and thus, must be resolved by the political branches rather than by the judiciary. The political question doctrine serves to prevent the federal courts from intruding unduly on certain policy choices and value judgments that are constitutionally committed to Congress or the executive branch. A nonjusticiable political question exists when, to resolve a dispute, the court must make a policy judgment of a legislative nature, rather than resolving the dispute through legal and factual analysis.
Plaintiff Native Village of Kivalina (the Village) is the governing body of an Inupiat Eskimo village of approximately 400 people who reside in the City of Kivalina (Kivalina), which also is a plaintiff in this action. The Complaint alleged that as a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice that protects the Kivalina coast from winter storms has diminished, and that the resulting erosion and destruction will require the relocation of Kivalina's residents. The Village and Kivalina (collectively, Plaintiffs) have named twenty-four oil, energy and utility companies from whom they seek damages under a federal common law claim of nuisance, based on their alleged contribution to the excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which they claim are causing global warming. Defendant oil, energy, and utility companies filed Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) motions to dismiss.
Was plaintiffs' federal claim for nuisance barred by the political question doctrine?
The court agreed with defendants that plaintiffs' federal claim for nuisance was barred by the political question doctrine. While defendants showed that global warming issues might implicate foreign policy and related economic issues, the fact that the case touched foreign relations did not ipso facto place it beyond the reach of the judiciary. However, the court found the political question doctrine applicable because resolution of the question demanded that the court move beyond areas of judicial expertise as there were no judicially discoverable and manageable standards available to adjudicate the issues. Further, it would be impossible for the court to decide the case without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion. The court also held that plaintiffs lacked U.S. Const. art. III standing to pursue their global warming claims under a nuisance theory because their injury was not fairly traceable to the conduct of defendants.