Washingtonians must face the hard truth: Climate change is happening, and if we do not change course, it will only get worse. As a former judge, I know it is critical that all three branches of government use every tool at their disposal to turn the tide. An incremental approach will not remedy the current crisis or protect future generations.
This year alone, we have endured record-setting heat waves; crop-destroying drought conditions; and unprecedented life- and property-destroying wildfires. The scientific community assures us that these conditions will worsen should we fail to establish an immediate response.
Since 2014, the youth plaintiffs in Aji P. v. State of Washington have asserted their constitutional right to a safe climate. Washington state has repeatedly sought dismissal before allowing the plaintiffs to present any evidence. Now these 13 young people await a decision from the Washington Supreme Court on whether they will get their day in court.
Since their quest began, Washington state’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased despite the claims of Olympia politicians that progress is being made. The political branches of government are simply unable to address this crisis on their own. And who can blame them? The climate crisis is incredibly complex — exactly why we need the impartial scrutiny of the judiciary to do its part.
Politicians change, and with them policies can change as well. A court order declaring the constitutional rights of Washingtonians can endure the tides of political change. This may be the only way to protect children — the most vulnerable demographic with the least political power.
Around the world courts are stepping up, hearing cases and making decisions about the climate crisis. In Montana, 16 youth plaintiffs are suing the state for violating their constitutional right to a healthy environment. Last month, they secured an important victory when Judge Kathy Seeley denied the state’s attempt to prevent their case, Held v. State of Montana, from proceeding to trial.
Back home, the youth behind the Aji P. case want that same chance: their constitutional right to a fair trial. This is, after all, foundational to American constitutional democracy. When the government denies the rights of the public, courts must step in, declare the law and order the political branches to comply with the constitution.
The youth are not asking the court to set climate policy or solve the climate crisis unilaterally. They simply want their day in court to defend their inalienable rights.
I take seriously the judicial branch’s duty to act in this climate crisis. In 2016, while sitting as a King County Superior Court judge, I ruled that the threat was so urgent that Washington state must be placed on a deadline to hold polluters accountable. That same year, I ruled that Washington has a constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens, including the young people in Aji P.
As in Brown v. Board of Education, this case is fundamentally about the constitutional rights of children. When no one else would protect children from segregated and inferior education, the U.S. Supreme Court took a bold step to protect them. We need Washington’s Supreme Court to act with the same integrity and courage that guided the pen of the Brown court.
While my years on the bench taught me that there’s no perfect opinion and no problem is solved with one case, I also learned that courts play a crucial role in resolving today’s most difficult problems. The youth in Aji P. have provided our state with an opportunity to take a bold step forward locally. We must seize it.
I fear for the futures of my grandchildren. However, I am heartened by the fact that Aji P. is before my colleagues on the state Supreme Court. I implore them to allow this case to go forward, and let these youth have their day in court.
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