SCOTUS won’t intervene on climate change cases now headed to state courts around the country
WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Oil companies facing climate change lawsuits won’t have the U.S. Supreme Court’s support on a key issue.
SCOTUS on April 24 declined to review appeals in several cases, leaving in place orders that allowed cities and counties, represented by private lawyers working on contingency fees, to pursue their litigation in state courts.
The government officials and private lawyers prefer state courts and fought to have their cases heard there after defendants like Exxon and Chevron removed them to federal court. The oil industry figured to be able to mount stronger defenses in federal court.
The oil companies argue the federal government explicitly encourages oil and gas development as national policy and the governments suing them are some of the biggest users of fossil fuels, with large fleets of automobiles, trucks and buses.
But the lawsuits make state law public nuisance claims, federal courts have ruled in remanding the cases to state court. Only Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted to hear the appeals. Justice Sam Alito didn’t participate.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the federal law issues in this case is certainly disappointing because it risks the creation of a patchwork of state court approaches to important public policy matters that are inherently federal and global in nature,” said Phil Goldberg, special counsel to the Manufacturers Accountability Project.
“But today’s events do not undermine the fact that, even under state law, selling Americans the energy they need and use every day is not a liability inducing event. When courts get to the substance of these claims—just like in New York City’s case that was dismissed in 2021—it will be evident that this litigation has no legal or factual foundation. The challenge of our time is developing technologies and public policies so that the world can produce and use energy in ways that are affordable for people and sustainable for the planet. It should not be figuring out how to creatively plead lawsuits that seek to monetize climate change and provide no solutions.”
The Supreme Court’s order might come as a surprise to the companies figuring they’d be able to make their arguments before the nation’s highest court. In the District of Columbia’s suit, they recently asked for a stay of the remand order until SCOTUS had a chance to weigh in.
The Supreme Court’s order addressed cases brought by Boulder, Colo., Baltimore, San Mateo County in California, Honolulu and the State of Rhode Island. Many public officials have teamed with private lawyers at Sher Edling to bring the lawsuits, which allege the defendants caused the “public nuisance” of climate change and seek to hold them accountable for costs cities, counties and states will incur to handle it.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a case filed by the State of Connecticut against American Electric Power Co., ruling that state courts are not the proper venue for cases involving damages for climate change, rather that Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are more appropriate forums for those questions.
The companies also argued that having state courts decide issues of climate change fragments the process in a piecemeal way heeding their own state interests and narrow fact gathering, rather than a broad overall cohesive federal approach. They also contend the litigation is geared toward making gas and oil so expensive consumers will reduce their consumption.
Climate-change plaintiffs suffered early defeats when federal appeals courts in California and New York rejected their lawsuits as raising unjusticeable political questions.
They retooled their strategy in part to navigate around those decisions and in part to maintain their lawsuits in state courts, where they can reasonably expect to achieve better results, especially against out-of-state corporations they are asking to pay billions of dollars that would flow to local infrastructure projects.