I came to Oregon on March 3rd, 2016 on a mission. The Federal Court scheduled a March 9th hearing on the law suit filed by 21 gutsy kids to save our environment.
The week prior to the hearing, the University of Oregon held its annual PIELC, Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, attended by some 3,000 attorneys and scientists from around the world. So I attended and that got me started.
Our Children’s Trust, the charity providing legal support for the gutsy kids who took on the federal government, warned us that a big crowd was expected and we should get to the court early so we could get a seat. I brought my cameras, in case I could take photos, but I couldn’t. So I left them in my hotel room to ease my getting through court house security. The suggested arrival time was 0910. To be safe, the day before the hearing, I checked out the parking; and today, got to the court house for the 10 A.M. hearing at 8:45.
I was late.
Though it was raining, a crowd in the hundreds crowded the court house steps and extended almost a block. TV cameras and posters – like “Our Future is a Constitutional Right” – were everywhere, along with kids bused from their schools, chaperoned by their teachers.
I scrambled to find a parking spot a few blocks away, and ran back to the court house to stand in line under a drizzling rain. Suddenly, I could hear a chant, a loud chant. Coming up the street were a bevy of teenagers each carrying a flower poster, wearing a tee shirt that touted “Everything is Connected to Everything.” The kids marched to a cadence:
“What do we want?
“No more climate change!”
“When do we want it?
“We want it now!.”
Oh! For a Camera!
Finally, an hour and a half later, I made my way through a security check point that was tougher than an airport to one of the three over-flow court rooms equipped with steaming video of the historic hearing. When Julia Olson, Our Children’s Trust CEO and Chief Counsel, completed her argument, the court room burst into applause.
The attorneys for the government, and the fossil fuel industry who joined in the litigation, made their final responses. Judge Thomas Coffin thanked everyone and the hearing was adjourned.
It’s too early to predict the outcome of the hearing, but one of the defendants’ arguments was that the kids don’t have “standing” – the legal right to ask the court to order our government to take care of our corner of the Earth, the only home we have.
The defendants argued that if the kids could successfully challenge the federal government in this case, that would open up the government to being challenged by others in other courts around the country and that would create some sort of legal chaos.
The argument took me back to my law school days and our Constitutional Law studies. The courts, I learned, advance the law “interstitially,” in small steps, a slice at a time. If there are conflicts between a court’s interstitial decision in Oregon and an interstitial decision from a court in Florida, the appellate courts and the Supreme Court will resolve the differences. It happens all the time. Thus, limiting the opportunities for future conflicts between courts, or reducing the court’s workload, simply because the courts are asked to opine on basic Constitutional Rights should not be a reason to deny standing.
Thus, I don’t think standing should be the defeating issue, but we live in a skewed Democracy of Dollars not in a balanced Democracy of People. Thus, I wouldn’t be shocked if, after all the appeals, that’s how the court ultimately comes down on its decision.
As I have written before regarding these issues, we are at the beginning and not the end of the story. If the story that will decide whether or not we are entitled to a healthy Earth is not to be decided within the chambers of a Federal Judge, it will be decided in the halls of Congress.
The last federal election, 2014, had the worst turnout of any federal election since World War II – 36.4% of eligible voters voted. Our fate was determined by the majority of those who voted – 18.3%. Too many people decided that they wouldn’t vote because their one-vote would be meaningless. Not true. Democracy is not a passive game.
So, marching kids and cheering crowds, like kids that marched and the crowds that flooded the court house on a rainy day in Eugene, Oregon are going to have to bring their messages to Washington and to our state capitals. If the questions raised in this law suit are political and only a political solution will save our corner of the Earth, then we have to be willing to take up the challenge.
Carrying that message is up to all of us.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event. If we don’t participate in it, it ceases to be a democracy.” Michael Moore