“[W]here there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy”1 — unless there isn’t. “The remedial powers of an equity court . . . are not unlimited,”2 and “traditional principles of equity jurisdiction” sometimes leave rightsholders without remedies for legal injuries.3 Recently, in Juliana v. United States,4 the Ninth Circuit held that ordering the federal government to adopt “a comprehensive scheme to decrease fossil fuel emissions and combat climate change” would exceed a federal court’s remedial authority.5 The result in Juliana is not surprising. But Juliana’s reasoning, which suggests that “limited and precise” legal standards must always constrain a court in issuing equitable relief, subtly but significantly narrows the remedial capacity of courts adjudicating large-scale “structural reform” cases.6
Environmental groups have long sought to enlist the federal courts in their fight against anthropogenic climate change.7 Most of these attempts have drawn on common law tort theories8 or federal statutory law, in particular the 1970 Clean Air Act.9 In 2015, however, one environmental group — Our Children’s Trust, a coalition of young people and environmental lawyers10 — took a more aggressive approach. Contending that the Constitution guarantees an unenumerated fundamental right to a “stable climate system,”11 the Trust filed suit against the United States in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.12 The Trust argued that the United States had “continued to permit, authorize, and subsidize fossil fuel extraction . . . [and] consumption” despite these activities’ contributions to global warming.13 This choice, it continued, had “infringed on” the Trust’s “constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”14 As relief, the Trust demanded (inter alia) an “[o]rder” requiring the United States “to prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and . . . stabilize the climate system.”15
In the district court, the United States moved to dismiss. It argued that the Trust had raised only political questions, lacked standing, and had not stated a claim for which relief could be granted.16 The district court disagreed and denied the motion.17 According to the district court, although climate policy was “politically charged,” the Trust’s suit did not raise political questions.18 Because an “order” requiring the United States “to swiftly phase out CO2 emissions” would “partially redress” the Trust’s “asserted injuries” from United States-caused climate change, the Trust had standing to sue.19 And because “a climate system capable of sustaining human life” was “fundamental to a free and ordered society,” the Trust had “state[d] a claim for a due process violation.”20 “This lawsuit may be ground-breaking,” the District Court concluded, but that was not the Trust’s fault.21 Rather, “[f]ederal courts too often [had] been cautious” in adjudicating environmental law cases, “and the world [had] suffered for it.”22 The United States sought an interlocutory appeal.23
After some procedural wrangling,24 the Ninth Circuit reversed on standing grounds.25 Writing for the panel, Judge Hurwitz26 began with the basics: “To have standing under Article III, a plaintiff must have (1) a concrete and particularized injury that (2) is caused by . . . challenged conduct and (3) is likely redressable by a favorable judicial decision.”27 Agreeing with the district court, Judge Hurwitz found that “[a]t least some plaintiffs” had claimed “particularized injuries,” since climate change threatened to harm certain plaintiffs in “concrete and personal” ways if left unchecked.28 And some plaintiffs had also established causation, since there was “at least a genuine factual dispute as to whether” U.S. climate policy was a “substantial factor” in exacerbating the plaintiffs’ climate change–related injuries.29 Thus, the Trust’s standing turned on redressability: “whether the plaintiffs’ claimed injuries [were] redressable by an Article III court.”30
“Reluctantly,” the panel found “such relief . . . beyond [its] constitutional power.”31 To establish redressability, it explained, the Trust needed to identify relief that was both “(1) substantially likely to redress [its] injuries” and “(2) within the district court’s power to award.”32 On the first prong, “plaintiffs’ experts” had established that only a comprehensive, government-led plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions could mitigate “the global consequences of climate change” and thereby bring the Trust redress.33 But, turning to the second prong, supervising such a plan “would necessarily require” judges to make “a host of complex policy decisions.”34 How quickly, for example, should the United States transition to renewable energy? How much should it invest in public transit?35 “‘[A] constitutional directive or legal standards’ must guide the courts’ exercise of equitable power,” the panel concluded, and “limited and precise” legal rules simply could not answer these kinds of questions.36 And because no remedy subject to limited and precise definition could redress the Trust’s injuries, issuing such relief was not within the district court’s power. The Trust thus lacked standing.
Judge Staton dissented.37 “Plaintiffs bring suit,” she lamented, “to enforce the most basic structural principle embedded in our system of ordered liberty: that the Constitution does not condone the Nation’s willful destruction.”38 In Judge Staton’s view, a district court had the power to award the Trust relief unless its claims ran afoul of the political question doctrine.39 Since the Trust’s claims did not pose political questions, she continued, they should have proceeded.40 “[O]ur history is no stranger to widespread, programmatic changes . . . ushered in by the judiciary,” Judge Staton concluded, and the “slow churn” of institutional-reform litigation “should not dissuade us here.”41
Although Juliana’s result was predictable, its reasoning sweeps more broadly than one might think. By suggesting that Article III courts cannot order injunctive relief unless constrained by “limited and precise” legal standards,42 Juliana subtly but significantly narrows the remedial authority of federal courts sitting in equity. In particular, it is not clear how “structural-reform” injunctions — in which courts require schools, firms, and other social institutions to change their behavior in order to make amends for past lawbreaking, most notably racial discrimination43 — fit within Juliana’s vision of the judiciary’s remedial powers.
As many outside observers noted, Juliana was always a “long shot.”44 Doctrinally, among other problems, the Supreme Court has mostly gotten “out of the business” of recognizing new unenumerated fundamental rights.45 And more practically, climate change is the kind of complex, multistakeholder issue that Anglo-American common law has historically left for politicians rather than judges to solve.46 Juliana’s outcome may therefore have been overdetermined, both as a doctrinal and as a sociological matter. The question was less whether the Trust might win, and more how it would lose.47
That said, the specific doctrinal path that the Ninth Circuit chose in Juliana may have significant legal and practical implications. First, Juliana’s central doctrinal suggestion — that courts lack the Article III authority to issue injunctions implicating “complex policy decisions”48 unless “limited and precise”49 “legal principles”50 require as much — is novel. To be sure, “[e]quitable relief in a federal court” has always been “subject to restrictions.”51 One line of cases, closely connected with the development of the political question doctrine, has limited courts’ remedial authority where the Constitution’s text “commits” certain issues to “the political branches of government.”52 And another line, describing prudential limitations on judicial discretion, has emphasized that courts must respect the separation of powers and “principles of federalism” when they craft equitable remedies.53 But Juliana does not rest on a textual commitment of climate policy to another branch of government, although the Juliana majority did note (almost in passing) that the Constitution expressly grants Congress the “Power to dispose of” public lands and thus the fossil fuels beneath them.54 And Juliana did not hold that the district court had abused its discretion in imposing a particular remedy in light of separation of powers principles; it held that Article III categorically rules out injunctive relief where no “constitutional directive or legal standard” can constrain “the courts’ exercise of equitable power.”55 Juliana’s rationale thus departs from, and extends beyond, the reasoning of prior Supreme Court cases setting the boundaries of federal district courts’ remedial capabilities.56
Second, more practically, Juliana’s focus on “limited and precise” legal standards57 could conceivably disrupt longstanding judicial practice in large-scale structural-reform cases. Structural-reform litigation is often long on judicial “flexibility” and short on specific doctrinal rules.58 In developing school desegregation remedies, for example, federal courts immerse themselves in the details of public school logistics: which schools to open and which to close, which teachers to hire and which to fire, and so on.59 Some legal principles “guide [the] exercise” of this “equitable power”60 — the plans must “eliminate the vestiges” of prior “de jure segregation”61 — but translating these principles into practice leaves much to individual jurists’ discretion.62 Climate change policy and school desegregation are probably distinguishable; among other things, desegregating a single school system, though complicated, is vastly less complex than decarbonizing an entire country. But the Juliana panel did not offer any explicit guidance on how to distinguish desegregation cases (or their analogs) from climate change.63 As a result, at minimum, defendants in future structural-reform suits will have plausible arguments that Juliana imposes new limits on district courts’ remedial authority.
Rucho v. Common Cause,64 which the Juliana panel seemed to believe compelled Juliana’s result,65 in fact confirms the novelty of Juliana’s reasoning. Rucho, from which Juliana derives its key “limited and precise”66 and “constitutional directive”67 language, held that suits challenging the constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders present nonjusticiable political questions because no “limited and precise” legal standard can separate good gerrymanders from bad ones.68 But this kind of indeterminacy involves rules governing primary conduct — “How much [partisan gerrymandering or climate change] is too much?”69 — rather than remedies — “Having decided that partisan gerrymandering or climate change is unlawful, what do we do about it?” And the Supreme Court has long acknowledged that courts enjoy a “broad power to formulate” equitable remedies, one which extends beyond their power to recognize and parameterize new rights.70 Juliana, however, assumes that Rucho’s discussion of rights applies equally to remedies. By collapsing this distinction between flexible rights-recognition and flexible remedy-implementation, Juliana thus narrows the remedial powers of Article III courts.
Justice Thomas has suggested that large-scale structural injunctions are “at odds with the history and tradition of the equity power and the Framers’ [constitutional] design.”71 Juliana does not go quite that far, at least on its face. But although Juliana’s holding is limited to climate change litigation, its reasoning may prove hard to cabin. Ultimately, at least in the Ninth Circuit, Juliana may come to stand for broad and significant limitations on the powers of federal district courts sitting in equity.