Utah kids challenge decision to dismiss their environmental lawsuit against state

Jan 5, 2023, 4:58 PM
The the entrance to the Utah Supreme Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured...
The the entrance to the Utah Supreme Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of Utah kids is not taking no for an answer as they challenge the dismissal of a lawsuit where they claim the state’s use of fossil fuels is infringing their right to life.

A notice that they are appealing the case to the Utah Supreme Court was filed on Tuesday. Six minors, who were between the ages of 9 and 17 when the lawsuit was filed in March 2022 are involved in the lawsuit through their guardians, and a then-18-year-old woman are now hoping the Supreme Court will address their case and rule that it should be allowed to continue.

Third District Judge Robert Faust ruled on Nov. 9, 2022, that the case should be dismissed, days after a hearing, and it was officially dismissed on Dec. 2.

Faust’s ruling said the children “have a valid concern” but the lawsuit’s claims cannot move forward. It said the Utah Legislature has already balanced interests and created policies, and striking down those policies would violate the separation of powers.

“The power to create and repeal environmental legislation is constitutionally committed to the political branches or the people directly in Utah,” the ruling said.

Faust also ruled that in order for the lawsuit to continue the youth would need to show that their injury is caused by the issues they are challenging and that the injuries could be addressed by the steps they request in the lawsuit. The ruling said addressing the “claimed harms would require a global solution” and, without a plan, it would be unlikely.

Another reason for the dismissal in Faust’s ruling is that courts have not previously used the “substantive due process” doctrine, which courts to protect fundamental rights, to address climate change.

The kids, however, argued this rule was incorrect. Andrew Welle, an attorney for the plaintiffs with Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement they are appealing the decision to correct an “erroneous ruling” and give the youths the opportunity to bring their constitutional claims to the court.

He said Utah is violating the youths’ constitutional right to life by reducing their lifespan by allowing and promoting fossil fuels.

“Judge Faust ruled that the fundamental right to due process under Utah’s Constitution can never apply if the harm to your life, liberty, or property involves fossil fuels,” said Welle. “Utah’s government is responsible for vast quantities of emissions that are damaging these children’s lungs, endangering their health and safety, and taking years off of their lives.”

Jeffrey Tiechert, an attorney for the state, argued in the hearing on the dismissal that the state constitution does not protect the right to a clean environment and the claims should be brought against the companies causing the pollution instead of the government.

Welle argued the state has the ability to address the harms, and said his clients are living in the state with the worst air quality in the nation.

“The state continues to actively throw fuel on the fire,” Welle said.

The lawsuit was filed against Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox, the Board of Oil Gas and Mining, the Division of Oil Gas and Mining and the Office of Energy Development.

Our Children’s Trust has been involved in similar lawsuits in the United States, Hawaii, Virginia and Montana. The Montana lawsuit is set to go to trial in June.

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Utah kids challenge decision to dismiss their environmental lawsuit against state