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Florida children’s climate lawsuit against state leaders set for key hearing Monday

One quirk: During the coronavirus pandemic, the hearing is supposed to be conducted by Zoom.
Left to right: Isaac Augspurg, 14; Levi Draheim, 12; Delaney Reynolds, 20; Valholly Frank, 17. They are part of a lawsuit challenging Florida leaders over climate policy.
Left to right: Isaac Augspurg, 14; Levi Draheim, 12; Delaney Reynolds, 20; Valholly Frank, 17. They are part of a lawsuit challenging Florida leaders over climate policy. [ Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald ]
Published May 28, 2020|Updated May 28, 2020

A group of Florida children who two years ago sued state leaders over climate change, saying policymakers are encouraging air pollution that threatens their right to a livable future, may get something of a day in court next week.

The case of Reynolds v. State of Florida is set for a hearing June 1 on motions to dismiss filed by the state and offices of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein. The case is in Leon County, home to Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, before Judge Kevin Carroll. One quirk: During the coronavirus pandemic, the hearing is supposed to be conducted by Zoom video conference.

“It is the right of my generation and future generations to live in a stable climate,” said Isaac Augspurg, a 14-year-old from Alachua.

The original lawsuit was filed during the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. Senator. Lawyers have since added officials in the current administration to their complaint.

The argument hinges on a fresh interpretation of the Constitution. Seattle lawyer Andrea Rodgers said a key part is asking the court to recognize that air — much like certain sections of shoreline — falls under the public trust doctrine, meaning it belongs to the people and elected leaders should protect and preserve it for the public good. The case also argues that Americans are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which should include a stable climate that allows for human life.

The Florida case is one of several legal challenges brought across the country under an organization called Our Children’s Trust. Federal appeals judges in January rejected the most widely known of those cases, Juliana v. United States, contending the dispute was better left to the more political branches of the government.

“We are not asking judges to write policy,” Rodgers said Wednesday in a media briefing involving children in the Florida case put on by a media consortium called The Invading Sea. “It is the judiciary’s role to interpret and apply the law.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for Fried referred to an old statement, which said the commissioner is committed to clean energy. A spokeswoman for the governor did not reply to two emails seeking comment.

In their motions to dismiss the case, lawyers for top Florida officials tacked a line similar to the federal ruling. DeSantis’ attorneys wrote that the case “raises inherently political questions that are not subject to judicial review.” The motion involving Fried mentions “nonjusticiable political questions.” Lawyers also disputed the notion that the air should be covered under the public trust standard. And attorneys for the Department of Environmental Protection and Secretary Valenstein said the agency does provide oversight on emissions under the Clean Air Act.

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The children in the Florida case now range in age from 12 to 22. Central to their lawyers’ claims is the argument that elected officials here have failed to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and instead support a system that encourages the burning of fossil fuels and releases of greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to global warming. Rising seas threaten to wash over land in their communities, they say, and each tell personal stories about fishing, snorkeling and other connections to nature.

Valholly Frank, 17, said she is a Native American who has grown up around the Big Cypress Reservation.

“I joined because of how deeply I care for the lands that I was raised on,” she said Wednesday. She said politicians of both parties speak about the environment but have failed to implement radical changes. “They can talk and talk and talk, but I think it’s up to us to really make them act.”

Delaney Reynolds, 20, of Miami, is the lead plaintiff who lent her name to the case.

“Hopefully the judge will tell them that they need to make some laws and cut back on our carbon emissions,” she said. “We’re going to be in this for as long as it takes.”


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