Alanna Mayham

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A landmark youth-led climate change lawsuit in Oregon came to a halt on Wednesday when a Ninth Circuit panel granted the federal government’s petition to dismiss the case without an opportunity to amend.

In their 2015 lawsuit, 21 young climate activists — initially between the ages of 8 and 19 — accuse the federal government of contributing to climate change through fossil fuel production, thus harming them and violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property while failing to protect public trust resources.

The lawsuit narrowly escaped dismissal in 2023. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken allowed the plaintiffs to file a second amended complaint following a divided ruling from the Ninth Circuit in 2020 with instructions to dismiss the case for lack of standing.

Later that year, Aiken, a Clinton appointee, denied the government’s motion to dismiss again, prompting the federal government to request a stay on proceedings as the Ninth Circuit decides whether to grant its seventh writ of mandamus seeking the case’s dismissal.

But while the Ninth Circuit agreed on Feb. 29 to review the feds' petition, Aiken denied the government’s request to stay on April 19, saying it would further delay the nine-year-old case.

“This court cannot discern any public interest in such delay,” Aiken wrote.

Aiken also filed a supplemental order to the Ninth Circuit on why it should deny the government’s writ of mandamus, emphasizing that the case belongs in trial court, not with the Ninth Circuit.

“Defendants therefore have other means, such as a direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief,” Aiken wrote. “This court recommends denying defendants’ petition for writ of mandamus.”

On May Day, of all days, the Ninth Circuit disagreed.

U.S. Circuit Judges Mark J. Bennett, Ryan D. Nelson and Eric D. Miller, all appointees of former President Donald Trump, explained their rejection of Aiken’s reasoning that allowed the young plaintiffs to amend — a ruling that relied in part on the judge’s conclusion that amendment was not expressly precluded in the Ninth Circuit’s 2020 order.

“Neither the mandate’s letter nor its spirit left room for amendment,” the panel wrote in the order.

Aiken also relied on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2021 ruling in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, which she interpreted as an intervening change in the law, the panel noted. That case asked “whether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury.”

“Thus, Uzuegbunam was a damages case which says nothing about the redressability of declaratory judgments," the judges concluded.

"Damages are a form of retrospective relief. Declaratory relief is prospective. The Juliana plaintiffs do not seek damages but seek only prospective relief. Nothing in Uzuegbunam changed the law with respect to prospective relief.”

Attorneys for the Juliana plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for an interview or comment.