Utah’s state constitution guarantees every Utahn the right to “enjoy and defend their lives.”
Natalie R. v. State of Utah is an active lawsuit where seven Utahn youth argue that the state’s promotion of the mining and utilization of fossil fuels in Utah, despite known harms of fossil fuel pollution, is violating their constitutional right to life by shortening their lifespans.
Andrew Welle, the senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm working as co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, explained the legal basis of the case.
“The state’s explicit policy of getting as much fossil fuel out of the ground, when that is causing the pollution that’s diminishing these young people’s lifespan by a number of years, violates their rights to life and the right to be not endangered by their government,” Welle said.
The case was dismissed by 3rd District Court Judge Robert Faust last November on the grounds that the Utah judicial system does not have the authority to create and repeal environmental legislation.
Faust’s decision to grant the state’s motion to dismiss explained that “[t]here is no precedent for extending the doctrine of substantive due process into policy decisions regarding the development of fossil fuels. Courts have uniformly concluded substantive due process does not apply to fossil fuels policy,” citing similar cases from across the nation.
“Moreover,” the decision continued, “the Supreme Court also cited … that the Federal Coal Act did not infringe substantive due process rights because it was economic legislation and did not abridge fundamental rights.”
This past January, however, Our Children’s Trust successfully appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Utah.
“[This appeal is] incredibly encouraging because it tells us that the Utah Supreme Court recognizes the important constitutional issues that are involved in the case and that it is deserving of their attention,” said Welle. “And I’m very optimistic because the law is very clear in Utah that this is the type of case that Utah’s courts are there to decide. It’s Utah’s courts’ job to decide if that violates these young people’s constitutional rights.”
Natalie R. v. State of Utah is just one of many legal battles between youth and government regarding the climate crisis.
Universities across the country have long been the grounds for the civil discussion of prominent political issues and the push to help rectify these issues, and the climate crisis is no different. “I would encourage young people to get involved and not to underestimate the power and influence they have, especially when they raise their voice in a way that is consistent with the degree of this problem as a fundamental human rights issue,” said Welle.
Those interested in the work and cases of Our Children’s Trust can find more information on their website.
Story by: Jacob Horne
Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University