In the landmark climate suit Juliana v. United States, a group of youth plaintiffs asserted that the federal government violated their constitutional rights by promoting climate change, and asked the court to develop and supervise a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. While the plaintiffs’ assertion of a constitutional right to a stable climate drew headlines, their requested relief—a structural injunction—was equally distinct in recent litigation. The idea of a court overseeing agency policymaking might seem unusual, but the structural injunction has a long history in American law, most prominently in school desegregation cases. This paper assesses the continuing relevance of this instrument in addressing global climate change, drawing on case studies of successful and unsuccessful structural injunctions against the federal government to evaluate the prospects of a more limited climate injunction.
Part II of this paper explores the origins of the structural injunction in the era of desegregation, the scholarly debate over its function, and its relevance to the Juliana suit. Part III provides four case studies of structural injunctions against the federal government, and elucidates that, historically, successful injunctions have been limited to a single agency or program and have relied on the cooperation of the agency to succeed in effectively reshaping the targeted program. Part IV analyzes these case studies in light of the injunctive relief requested by plaintiffs in Juliana, which demanded action from several different agencies and required complex judicial intervention that the appeals court was unwilling to entertain.
This paper suggests that the relief requested by the plaintiffs in Juliana was overly broad. But it argues that, despite the failure of Juliana, courts still have significant latitude to restrict federal activity contributing to climate change. It proposes a narrowly tailored structural injunction targeted at the Bureau of Land Management’s fossil fuel leasing program as one example of how a more targeted injunction might succeed.