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Court allows Trump administration to appeal youth climate case before trial

The Trump administration on Dec. 26 won a new foothold in its effort to block a lower court from holding trial proceedings in a case in which a group of youths is seeking to make federal agencies address and limit the impacts of climate change.

A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit granted the federal government permission to file interlocutory appeal — to seek a ruling by the appeals court on questions of law before the trial begins in a lower court. But the 9th Circuit did so only after Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene Division, effectively gave her consent through a certification for interlocutory appeal.

A federal court ruling that the government must act on climate change could have wide-reaching implications for U.S. energy policy, particularly if the case is resolved during the current administration, which has moved to unwind regulations holding back fossil fuel development.

The federal government has been fighting the case since 2015, when two environmental groups and 21 children filed suit in the district court against then-President Barack Obama, numerous federal agencies and executive branch officials. The plaintiffs alleged that the government has a constitutional responsibility to take more steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change.

Although the federal government hasn't said what it will argue on interlocutory appeal, it has previously suggested to the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court and Aiken that courts do not have jurisdiction to effectively usurp the authority of the U.S. Congress and executive branch to direct agencies to act, or not act, on climate-related issues. The U.S. Department of Justice also has said there is no proven link between the government's inaction and the injuries the youth claim to have suffered due to climate change. The federal government has further argued that it would be harmed by going through a 50-day trial and that the case is not a constitutional one but instead involves the Administrative Procedures Act, which would inherently mean the youth have no standing. Aiken previously ruled that the claims were brought directly under the U.S. Constitution.

This is the fourth time the federal government has petitioned the 9th Circuit to intervene in the matter, which Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland noted in her dissent to the order. Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and Circuit Judges Marsha Berzon voted to allow the appeal.

Friedland said it is "concerning that allowing this appeal now effectively rewards the Government for its repeated efforts to bypass normal litigation procedures by seeking mandamus relief in our court and the Supreme Court. If anything has wasted judicial resources in this case, it was those efforts."

As for the decision itself, Friedland raised the question of whether letting the government appeal the case would materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation, which is one of two grounds that the Supreme Court has previously held is necessary to allow interlocutory appeal.

The 9th Circuit gave the government 14 days to file its appeal. Meanwhile, the lawyers for the youth on Dec. 27 asked Aiken to resume trial proceedings.

The district court case is Juliana v. United States (No. 6:15-cv-01517), while the 9th Circuit case is United States of America et al. v. U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Eugene (No. 18-73014).