The Judicial Branch of the federal government is responsible for interpreting and reviewing the country’s laws. The Supreme Court is the most powerful body of the Judicial Branch. About 8,000 cases are filed with the Supreme Court each year, but only about 80 are chosen to be heard and decided by the Court. The Supreme Court is the only court where the Justices make the decision whether or not to hear a case. Most often, a case makes it to the Supreme Court after the plaintiffs involved appeal the ruling of one of the US Courts of Appeal.
There are numerous cases weaving their way through the courts. Exxon Mobil, for example, is facing a wave of lawsuits driven in large part by revelations, which began surfacing in 2015, indicating that the climate crisis is not the result of blind error, or even willful ignorance, but rather calculated abuses of power. The revelations suggested that Exxon had conducted scientific studies that showed the warming effect of carbon emissions and predicted the dire consequences of climate change, before spending millions on misinformation to derail regulation and solidify international dependence on fossil fuels. Massachusetts and New York have both sued Exxon for fraud.
Meanwhile, cities like San Francisco, New York City, Richmond and others have filed suits for damages from climate change against companies like Chevron, BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips in addition to Exxon. Several high-profile cases challenging the expansion of oil pipelines are also being litigated (4).
And, then there is the landmark case of Juliana v. US, brought by 21 young people in 2015, which argues that the federal government’s duty to serve as a trustee of resources extends to the atmosphere, and that it had thus failed in that constitutional duty. On January 17, 2020, a divided federal court, having heard the case in June 2019, concluded that the plaintiffs do not have standing. With one out of three judges dissenting, Our Children’s Trust went ahead and filed an en banc petition for rehearing. After which, a group made up of 24 members of Congress, experts in the field of constitutional law, climate change, public health, and many organizational leaders, filed a Friend of the Courts brief urging the court to convene a new panel of judges and take the previous ruling under review. The case is currently pending in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Just as many of these cases are winding their way through the courts, the makeup of the highest court in the land is uncertain and the center of heated scrutiny. With the death of renowned Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18, 2020, a seat on the Supreme Court has opened for the third time in President Trump’s term. Despite clear precedent from the Republican party that a new justice should not be confirmed during an election year, never mind when Americans are already voting, the President nominated Amy Coney Barrett on September 26th. Barrett promises to shift the court to the far right for decades to come and environmental organizations have already expressed concern that she will be favorable towards fossil fuel companies.
Most recently, on October 2, 2020 the Supreme Court agreed to review a Fourth Circuit ruling that a Baltimore suit — seeking to put energy giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil on the hook for climate-related infrastructure damages — belongs in state court.