In August of 2015, a group of young plaintiffs supported by a group of adults who call themselves Our Children’s Trust filed suit in federal court in Oregon asking the court to find that their right to live in a healthy environment is guaranteed by the US Constitution. Such a claim is laughable on its face. Surely the framers were not concerned with global warming and climate change when they assembled in Philadelphia one long, hot summer more than 200 years ago, were they?
Our Children’s Trust Files Suit
In November 2015, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers all petitioned the court to join in the legal battle on the side of the defendants. At that time, they told the court, the suit was a “direct threat to [their] businesses. The impacts could impair the interests of virtually the entire swatch of the NAM, AFPM, and API’s members,” their motion to intervene read. “For all these reasons, it is critical that they have the opportunity to intervene.”
Please Don’t Throw Me Into The Brier Patch!
The law, however, can be a cruel mistress. Like Bre’r Bear in the Uncle Remus parables, once the fossil fuel interests stuck their foot into the legal thicket, they found themselves getting drawn deeper and deeper into the web of lies and deceit they themselves had created to promote their unhealthy business practices.
One of the most important parts of litigation is what is called the “discovery phase.” Under the federal rules of civil procedure, all the parties are entitled to ask written questions to each other, demand the admission of certain facts, and conduct oral interrogations known as depositions. The purpose of discovery is to narrow the scope of the issues in dispute and encourage parties to compromise.
Motion To Dismiss Denied
Last November, U.S. federal Judge Ann Aiken denied a motion to dismiss brought by the various defendants. Her ruling found the young plaintiffs had sufficient standing for the case to proceed. In January, the plaintiffs filed their written questions to the defendants, who had until May 25 to file their answers with the court.
They didn’t. Instead, API, NAM, and AFPM all filed motions asking to be let out of the case. Remember Bre’r Bear and the tar baby? Yeah, that’s what is happening to the defendants. Their lawyers told them there was no way the court would let the case proceed. Now that it is heading for trial, they would like to forget the whole thing and slink back to their comfy boardrooms and lick their wounds.
API Won’t Come Clean
“API and its members will not come clean on the facts of climate change because they know it exposes them to liability for the damage they too have caused to the global climate system,” Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “After these youths sued the government, the trade associations pleaded their members’ interests would be destroyed if they weren’t allowed to be in the case, but now they are running for the hills. Now, they’ve decided they’re better off being on the sidelines than subjecting themselves to discovery.”
“API masterminded the infamous 1998 ‘roadmap’ memo that outlined a plan to cultivate purportedly independent scientists as climate disinformers, confuse the public on climate science and derail climate policies,” Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “What we know is just the tip of the melting iceberg and API is now desperately trying to keep other evidence of its dirty tricks from coming to public light. Big Oil cannot continue to hide behind trade groups — we will hold them accountable.”
Karma Is A Bitch
These companies are smack in the middle of what may turn out to be the biggest criminal conspiracy in history. If they are forced to answer the questions posed to them, they could prove they are at the heart of the climate denial lie.
The federal rules of civil procedure give judges wide latitude to enforce them. If the court refuses to allow then to withdraw and the companies refuse to comply, contempt citations could follow. The court also has the power to force the defendants to pay any attorneys fees incurred by the plaintiffs to uncover the truth by other means.
Courts are usually disinclined to give much solace to litigants they believe are trying to manipulate them. The final chapter has yet to be written to this story, but the fossil fuel companies, through their own arrogance, now seem to be well and truly hoist on their own petard.
Shakespearean analogies aside, as America descends into climate change chaos and the putative president does everything in his power to bring back coal jobs and take America back to the 19th century when white men ruled the roost, the courts may be the only locus of sanity in American government.
Why The Ninth Circuit?
The fact that Our Children’s Trust brought suit in a federal district court overseen by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is no accident. The Ninth Circuit is known as the most liberal of all the circuit courts. The Donald has already complained bitterly about its decision in the Muslim travel ban case and threatened to break it up by appointing new ultra-conservative judges to its ranks.
What Trump doesn’t know is that judges are not like normal people. More than any other group in society, they consider an attack on one of their members to be an attack on them all. The more Trump runs his mouth about “terrible judges,” the more he will invite hostility and retribution from the judiciary.
How fitting is it that this case seems destined to draw virtually every fossil fuel company into its web, many of them by their own actions? ExxonMobil is a member of API. Any answers it gives in this case could be used against it in the investigations being pursued by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.
To invoke Shakespeare once again, “Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.” If there is any justice in the world, the court will refuse to allow these scofflaws to withdraw from this case.
Source: Think Progress