By Clark Mindock
September 20, 2022 - A Virginia state judge has tossed a lawsuit filed on behalf of 13 young people who claim a state law that promotes fossil fuel development violates their constitutional rights, finding the government is immune to the kinds of arguments made by the kids.
Judge Clarence Jenkins Jr on Friday rejected the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this year by Our Children's Trust (OCT), a nonprofit law firm that advocates on environmental issues.
The kids, ranging in age from 10 to 19, claimed a law that directs the state to maximize exploration and development of coal, oil and gas resources violates their constitutional right to life and liberty. The youth argued the policies result in increasing greenhouse gases, which hasten climate change and put their future and wellbeing at risk.
Jenkins said the state can’t face those claims in its own court system since state law shields the government from lawsuits alleging harms.
The judge did not address the specific allegations that the state's pro-fossil fuel policies are affecting climate change and the youths' futures.
The plaintiffs said they will appeal. Nate Bellinger, an attorney at OCT representing the young people, said the judge’s decision could have serious consequences for any plaintiff challenging government policy.
The state policies are “doubling down, maximizing fossil fuels in the midst of this climate crisis,” he said.
The suit is one of five pending cases filed by OCT for youth plaintiffs against state governments across the country, arguing policies promoting fossil fuel development violate their constitutional rights. A case filed in Montana is set to become the first to go to trial next summer.
The first youth-led case in the United States was filed in 2015 by OCT on behalf of 21 young people against the U.S. government. Juliana v. United States likewise claims young people's constitutional rights are being violated by pro-fossil fuel policies, and is pending in Oregon.
Victoria LaCivita of the Virginia Attorney General's Office said the state is "pleased" with the court's decision Friday to dismiss the lawsuit.
The case is Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Circuit Court for the City of Richmond, No. CL22000632-00.
For the plaintiffs: Nate Bellinger and Kimberly Willis of Our Children’s Trust; and Isak Howell of Howell Law Office
For Virginia: Attorney General Jason Miyares, Solicitor General Andrew N. Ferguson and Deputy Attorney General Steven Popps