New Mexico Court Refuses To Take Steps To Apply Public Trust Doctrine To The Atmosphere

by McCarter & English: Climate Change & Renewable Energy
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Two years ago, we observed a potentially startling development in climate change litigation: “On Monday, May 4, [2011] in state courts across the nation lawyers representing children and young adults filed (and apparently will continue to file) suits seeking to compel State governments to recognize the application of the public trust doctrine to greenhouse gas emissions and to take action to abate those emissions.” These lawsuits were coordinated by two groups, Our Children’s Trust and Kids vs. Global Warming, and sought to apply the Public Trust Doctrine to the atmosphere. At the time, we pointed out that there were a host of issues to be resolved before these lawsuits could be successful. And so far, although the Public Trust Doctrine is now recognized in some jurisdictions as applying to the atmosphere, not one suit has been successfully concluded.  Recently, the New Mexico suit, although it survived a motion to dismiss, joined its unsuccessful brethren when the District Court granted a motion for summary judgment against the plaintiffs. 

In the case, Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, seventeen-year-old Aklilah Sanders-Reed sued New Mexico and Susana Martinez in her official capacity as governor for breaching their duty to uphold the public trust with respect to greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Asserting that “courts have emphasized the flexibility of the [public trust] doctrine to meet changing societal concerns,” Sanders-Reed and her lawyers argued in their complaint that “Governor Martinez has failed to use her authority for the protection of the atmosphere, a valuable public trust resource that belongs to present and future generations of New Mexico citizens.” Plaintiffs effectively hoped that, by applying the Public Trust Doctrine to the atmosphere, the state judiciary could order stricter greenhouse gas regulations.

In her June 26th, 2013 Order on Summary Judgment (attached), the Honorable Sarah M. Singleton noted the gravity of such a decision: “I think that in applying this Doctrine … the Supreme Court would allow the judicial branch to bypass the political process if there was an indication that the political process had gone astray.”  Citing an earlier case in Hawaii, Judge Singleton went on to conclude that, “the State may compromise public rights in the resource only when the decision is made with a level of openness, diligence, and foresight that is commensurate with the high priorities that the rights command under the laws of the state.”

With these conclusions in mind, the Court opined that even if the Public Trust Doctrine does apply to the atmosphere, invoking it to protect the atmosphere would stand at odds with New Mexico’s record of doing so legislatively.

The question is whether or not the State is ignoring its role in protecting the environment or the atmosphere. The State’s not ignoring it, it just disagrees with what the Plaintiff thinks is needed. So the State, in my opinion, has acted on this.

Now, is there the possibility under the Public Trust Doctrine that the State’s action could be so wrongheaded as to invoke the Public Trust Doctrine? I  suppose that in rare circumstances, it could. But I believe that before a court should jump in to apply a doctrine like the Public Trust Doctrine, there should be some showing that the process was tainted or that the public was foreclosed from pursuing the issue. That is not the case here.

Judge Singleton went on to explain that, by virtue of the state Environmental Impact Board’s public decision-making process, plaintiffs had not been denied their chance to participate in its findings on greenhouse gas emissions. She then asserted that regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is, “a political decision, not a Court decision,” before granting summary judgment.  With that decision, Sanders-Reed’s attempt to curtail New Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions fell short at the trial court. But an appeal was filed on July 24th so it may not be over yet. (We note that Our Children’s Trust plaintiffs have a busy appellate docket.  Following losses at  the trial or intermediate appellate court, appeals are pending in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington also have pending appeals of litigation.  Losses on appeals in Arizona and Minnesota have not been further appealed.  They have appeals of regulatory petitions pending in TexasIowa, and Pennsylvania.)

As stated in Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest v. Hassell, and repeated earlier this spring in the Arizona OCT appeal, Butler v. Brewer, "as an attribute of federalism, each state must develop its own jurisprudence for the administration of the lands it holds in public trust."  Our Children’s Trust may have extended that rule to the “administration of the [atmospheric resources held] in public trust”, but so far that has had no effect. 

20130704 Order on Summary Judgment (Sanders-Reed v. Martinez).pdf (410.72 kb)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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