Multnomah County joins youth in Oregon Supreme Court arguments to protect air, water

November 13, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury on Wednesday restated Multnomah County’s support for the young people suing the state of Oregon over the climate crisis, saying the time has come to protect those qualities which make for a “livable Oregon,’’ including its land, water and air. 

The Oregon Supreme Court earlier Wednesday heard arguments in that groundbreaking case, Chernaik v. Brown. Olivia Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana are two young people from Lane County who sued Oregon under the ancient public trust doctrine, saying the state has a duty to protect its water, fish, wildlife and air against harm, including climate change. 

The state’s lawyers argue that the state has no such obligation, with public trust protections limited only to submerged and submersible lands on navigable waters. Multnomah County and Lane County submitted a joint brief in support of the young people. The county’s chairs laid out their arguments in an op-ed in the Oregonian this weekend.

State Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments at a special hearing at David Douglas High School in east Portland. The plaintiffs are seeking to overturn a January 2019 Court of Appeals decision that said the public trust doctrine imposes no duty on the state. The appellate judges also declined to identify which natural resources fall under the public trust doctrine.

Immediately after the Supreme Court arguments, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Courtney Johnson, spoke at nearby Peace Church of Brethren, along with Juliana, who filed suit in 2011, when she was just 15.

“I’m 23. I’ve already graduated high school. This case should also be graduated. Why are we still in the courts?” Juliana said. “We are facing a lifetime of uncertainty and devastation if we don't act right now.” 

Chair Kafoury said Oregonians are already witnessing dramatic changes: Record-breaking wildfires, an acidifying ocean and snow melting “a full month earlier than when I was a kid.”

“My colleagues and I on the Multnomah County Board believe that governments do have a duty, morally and legally, to protect natural resources, particularly in light of the climate crisis,” she said.

Johnson, executive director of Crag Law, said a Supreme Court ruling could take one to two years. The state case is related to a federal constitutional case brought by Juliana and 20 other youths nationwide, Juliana v. United States. That case asserts that the government’s energy policies and other actions have not only failed to protect public trust resources, but also violated young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. 

Juliana expressed her frustration with “surface-level action” on climate, saying aggressive action is needed.

“Enough is enough,’’ Juliana said. “You will hear our voices because we are being affected right now. And further delay, further inaction on this issue, is going to imperil our future.”