Ex-Louisvillian helps teens sue over climate

Legal experts doubt the case will ultimately succeed but along the way it's giving the young people a pronounced voice in debate over what to do about climate change

James Bruggers
  • Former Louisville resident embraces new roll after law school, Louisville political scandal.
  • Federal judge in Oregon rejects government, industry efforts to kill the kids' climate lawsuit.
  • Young people are finding inspiration in lawsuit that seeks to give them a bigger voice.
  • A trial could force Trump administration to articulate its understanding of climate science.

Curtis Morrison left Louisville in a cloud of controversy, a Louisville political activist whose 2013 clandestine recording of a Sen. Mitch McConnell strategy session grabbed national headlines, prompted an FBI investigation and brought consternation on him from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Curtis Morrison, a former Louisville political activist and blogger, checks his smart phone outside a court hearing in Oregon in September.

Four years later, after earning a law degree from Whittier Law School in California, Morrison isn't looking back after landing a job supporting work of an Oregon nonprofit that's helping teenagers sue the government over climate change. That lawsuit in federal court in Oregon passed a major hurdle late last year when District Judge Ann Aiken rejected arguments by the Obama administration and the fossil fuel industries to dismiss the case, setting up a potential trial later this year, and creating a buzz across the country.

Morrison, a former Louisville blogger and real estate agent, said his new career choice wasn't planned, even as his concerns about climate change go back several years.

He said his situation was so hot following the public release of the recording, where McConnell and aides discussed opposition research of potential challenger Ashley Judd, that he had to rethink his future.

"Law school was an obvious choice for me," he said in a telephone interview. "While you are subject to an open investigation by the FBI, it's difficult to land a job."

Morrison said the FBI eventually dropped the case, but by then, he was on his way to being named Whittier Law School’s 2016 Outstanding Environmental Law graduate, and securing his job of supporting staff attorneys at Our Children's Trust, the Oregon group. He also assists with communications and uses social media to champion the work of youth climate advocates – a cause he said is very rewarding.

"I didn't send McConnell a thank-you letter," he half-joked. "But I should have."

The Justice Department had no comment, spokeswoman Stephanie Collins said.

"We're fed up"

Our Children's Trust filed the case in 2015 on behalf of 21 plaintiffs, ages 9 to 20, from several states. Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen is also a plaintiff, as a "guardian" for future generations. They claim the government has not only caused climate change but allowed others to make it worse. As a consequence, the government has violated young peoples' constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, has failed to protect public trust resources, according to the lawsuit.

Hannah Fowler, 17, a senior at Fern Creek HIgh School holds a Barred Owl named Locket at the Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky where she volunteers.
Jan. 6, 2017

The youths want the courts to put the country on a strict climate pollution diet to help stabilize the atmosphere.

While legal experts doubt the case has much if any chance of getting to the U.S. Supreme Court, its argument is likely to resonate with many young people who see global warming from their unique perspective, and who, scientists warn, will end up inheriting the escalating climate consequences and costs in the decades ahead.

"We are fed up with the government failing to take adequate action, and this case is a perfect example of how youth are willing to do whatever it takes to have their voice heard," said Kayla Soren, a 2016 duPont Manual High School grad and executive director of the International Student Environmental Coalition. She is not involved in the suit but is familiar with it and noted that its plaintiffs claim specific harm, such as impacts from drought, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, storm surges and forest fires.

Young people are too often dismissed as being "over-optimistic and idealistic," she said, and this lawsuit shows them "standing up for their individual rights that are stripped by government inaction."

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Hannah Fowler, a Fern Creek High School senior, sees a generational divide.

"The older ... generations and our politicians now, they don't seem much or aren't too concerned with climate change," she said. She also is not one of the plaintiffs but said she is energized by them. "The younger generation has a better grip on this and are more focused," she said.

Fowler, who volunteers at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky and plans to study biology at Western Kentucky University this fall, expressed frustration. "If nobody else is going to do something, then I will," she said. "I think a lot of my generation has that mindset."

Climate rights debated

Morrison said the hope is that the case Juliana et. al. vs. the United States of America could lead to a landmark ruling on par with high court decisions on civil rights that ended legal segregation in public schools or that granted same-sex marriage equality.

"I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society," Aiken wrote in her opinion. "To hold otherwise would be to say that the Constitution affords no protection against a government's knowing decision to poison the air its citizens breathe or the water its citizens drink."

The Obama administration, even while taking historic steps to fight climate change through regulations and last year's Paris agreement among 195 countries, fought but failed to get the kids' case thrown out. It was joined by industry groups such as the  American Petroleum Institute and National Association of Manufacturers.

Justice Department lawyer Sean Duffy argued in court that there is no constitutional right to a stable climate system nor is there any federal public trust doctrine that safeguards the country's natural resources for its citizens.

"Courts cannot order agencies to issue sweeping regulations without supplanting the legislative and executive branches and thereby upsetting the separation of powers in the constitution," he also argued.

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While the Obama administration called climate change "a monumental threat to America's health and welfare" in the case, the incoming Trump administration could amend that position and put the new administration's climate views squarely before the judge and the American people. Trump has called climate change a hoax while later saying he's open to the science. He has nominated cabinet members who have disputed or questioned mainstream climate science and who have close ties to the oil and gas industries.

The attorney for industry participants, Quin M. Sorenson, told the judge "my clients would differ ... to the extent of climate change, and to the emissions that cause it, and to other scientific principles."

Case spurs discussion

Legal experts don't give the case much of a chance. It may make it through federal court in Oregon, or possibly even the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where judges may have a more progressive interpretation of the Constitution, they said.

But the Supreme Court is long past its "activist heyday" in the 1960s and 1970s, and has already struck down a federal public trust argument, said John Nagle, who teaches environmental and constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The Supreme Court is likely to get even more conservative during a Trump administration, and less willing to broadly interpret the constitutional provision that Americans may not be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law.

Twenty one youth plaintiffs and their attorneys outside an Oregon courthouse in September.

Still he said the suit could help the climate cause through the publicity and discussion it creates, especially during a trial. The group's recent effort to seek a deposition from Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson before he takes office was a clever public relations move, Nagle said.

"At least going back to the '60s, groups have used litigation this way to change the law by gaining public awareness," he said. "That's something that liberals and conservatives have employed alike."

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Russell L. Weaver, a professor at University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, said among the suit's challenges is that there isn't any realistic remedy the courts could impose.

"Are they going to tell the federal government that they will have to do 'a,' 'b,' and 'c,' (and) put control on cars or restrictions on airplanes? You'd have judges taking over most aspects of the government. Courts don't like to supervise government officials," he said.

Morrison said he was inspired in part to work on climate change after spending two days in jail in 2011 with one of the nation's most prominent climate activists, author Bill McKibben, following protests of the Keystone XL pipeline. "He made it clear to me that the fight for climate change is ... a long fight that's going to take activism." Morrison said.

For his part, McKibben said he was pleased that his former Washington D.C. cellmate was involved in the Oregon case. He said he has met some of the young plaintiffs

"These people are talking about (climate change) in very direct, disturbing and powerful terms," he said. "They are saying it's not OK to leave us a broken world."

Reach reporter James Bruggers at (502) 582-4645 and at