Juliana v. United States is the primary focus of attorney Philip Gregory’s working life. Have you heard of it? It’s a unique approach to stopping climate change: sue the federal government for knowing about the coming danger of climate change and not doing enough to stop it. The 21 children who are the plaintiffs claim their constitutional rights have been violated as a result. Gregory is the co-lead counsel. He’s also a former Mainer, a graduate of Bowdoin College and a summer resident of Goose Rocks Beach. We called Gregory up to talk about the origins of Juliana v. United States, his involvement in the case and what it has in common with one of the most important legal cases of the civil rights movement. We caught him as he was traveling between Oregon, where the case is likely to be tried, and California, where he lives.

PINE TREE STATE BACKGROUND: Gregory was born outside of Boston, but the family moved to Auburn when he was in elementary school. “My dad worked for Raytheon” (which was opening an electronics plant in Lewiston). The family moved to California after that, but Gregory was a convert. “I went back to Bowdoin for college.” He was class of 1976, majoring in English and government. Did he want to be a lawyer then? “Yes, but I didn’t know what a lawyer did. I had this vague idea.”

SUMMERTIME: His brother teaches at Southern Maine Community College, and the family has a house in Goose Rocks Beach. Gregory hasn’t missed a summer visit, even though it has gotten hard to make the time to come. “This year, I only got a week because we were crazed with depositions.” Deposing government officials, that is, and working with his young clients are they are deposed by the government. “We did 50 depositions in 60 days.”

GETTING HERE FROM THERE: In 2010, Gregory and Pete McCloskey, the former congressman (and co-author of the Endangered Species Act of 1973), were working at the same law firm in California. The two men teamed up pro bono on a lawsuit in which a 15-year-old Ventura teenager named Alec Loorz was one of several teenaged plaintiffs. That suit, dubbed “Alec L,” accused the Obama administration for failing its duty to preserve the environment in public trust for future generations. It was dismissed, but Gregory went on to work with The Children’s Trust on the current lawsuit, which argues that Juliana et al. have the right under the Constitution to live in a habitable environment and the actions of the government have violated their rights to life, liberty and property. The government has also failed to protect essential public trust resources, the lawsuit says. “The Federal government has known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution was causing catastrophic climate change and that massive emission reductions and a nation-wide transition away from fossil fuels was needed,” it reads.

SUMMATION: Gregory compares Juliana v. United States to Brown v. Board of Education, the monumental Supreme Court case of 1954 that led to the desegregation of schools. In that case, the separate-but-equal policy was shown to have a harmful psychological impact on African American children. Since the Juliana suit was filed in 2015, things have only gotten worse, Gregory says. “In our case we have got a lot of evidence that our plaintiffs are being harmed both physically and psychologically. The government, through its actions, is exacerbating and doing nothing to address it. And the government has known that if it continues in business as usual that these children, and future generations, will be harmed.”

ON BEHALF OF ALICE: Gregory left his law firm this year to focus full time on Juliana v. United States. He anticipates it will keep him busy through 2019. At least. “I had to make a decision to either get out of the case or no longer be a part of the law firm, because the case is going to be so demanding. I decided that the case was more important and that I could always go back to making money (later).” He’s thinking about his own granddaughter’s future. “Alice is 21 months.”

PING PONG: There’s been a lot of back and forth action on the case recently. The Obama administration attempted to have it dismissed, and the Trump administration has done the same. But the case appeared headed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this year. In July, just before he left the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy issued an order denying the government’s request for a stay. The government asked for a stay again this fall, and got a temporary one. Earlier this month, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the Trump administration’s motion for a temporary stay of District Court proceedings but said trial preparations (depositions) can go forward. “So we keep starting and stopping and starting. One court clerk said it is like ping pong,”

WHAT DO WE WANT? The plaintiffs aren’t after money, Gregory said. “They want action.” Inventory the environmental situation. Set a baseline for where to stop carbon dioxide emissions. And targets. This has already been done, he notes. “350 parts per million by 2100. And then have the federal defendants develop and implement a plan that gets us there.” He’s referring to dialing back on our fossil fuel use enough to drop the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. In pre-industrial days, the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. In the last few years, that number has regularly exceeded 400 parts per million and it’s climbing. Getting back to 350 parts per million by 2100 is a goal many have set, including most notably, 350.org, the grassroots movement started in 2008 by a group that included author/activist Bill McKibben. Yes, millions of years ago levels exceeded that, but scientists say it was before human beings ever walked the Earth.

PLENTY OF PLAINTIFFS: Who are these 21 plaintiffs? And why are they referred to as “Juliana?” One of the plaintiffs is Kelsey Juliana, 22, one of 11 Oregon residents named. She was 18 when the suit was filed in August 2015 and the oldest of the group. (The youngest is from Florida and is now 11.) Is that why it’s named for her? “I honestly don’t know. I think she was the first to sign up.” Others are also old enough to vote now? Yes. About half of them are. And old enough to sit through depositions. “All but six have been deposed by the federal government. They are amazing. They understand both the climate science, and they recognize how the changing climate has exacerbated their damages.” You mean, if they win? “When we win!”

MEDIA MATTERS: The case has gotten considerable media coverage, but maybe not for the right reasons, from Gregory’s perspective. “It is very difficult for someone like me to call out the media, but… generally you are doing a very lousy job of covering (climate change). It takes disasters for people to focus on it at all.” Such as epic hurricanes in Florida caused by warming oceans and out-of-control, historic wildfires in California caused in part by drought. “Then the disaster goes away and the focus goes away.” Having a group of plaintiffs who are young helps keep the suit in the news. “The point I am trying to make is, they will write about the case because it’s kids, but they won’t write about the case because of climate change.”

SUPREME COURT CASE? Is this most significant case of your career? “Absolutely, given what is at stake. Even the federal government in our case admits that climate change is the danger zone, and that it is hurting people and things need to be done right away.”

 

 

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