Tag: Fifth Circuit

Big Global Warming Case Hinges on Weird Procedural Technicality

Nearly two weeks ago, I blogged about some strange procedural developments in the big global warming case coming out of the Gulf Coast, Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  On the eve of final briefing deadlines before the en banc Fifth Circuit, an eighth judge of that court recused from the case (we don’t know the reason, but the previous seven recusals were presumably due to stock ownership) and so the court was faced with an unprecedented situation: losing an en banc quorum after previously having had enough of one to vacate the panel decision and grant en banc rehearing in the first place.  We were all set to file our brief when the Clerk of the Fifth Circuit issued an order notifying the parties of the lost quorum and canceling the scheduled hearing — and nothing more.  Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to go ahead with filing late last week.

Again, here’s the situation: Mississippi homeowners sued 34 energy companies and utilities operating in the Gulf Coast for damage sustained to their property during Hurricane Katrina. The homeowners alleged that the defendants had emitted greenhouse gases, which increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contributed to global warming, which accelerated the melting of glaciers, which raised the global sea level, which increased the frequency and severity of hurricanes, which caused the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. The district court concluded that it lacked the authority to resolve the public debate over global warming and dismissed the case. A Fifth Circuit panel reversed this dismissal, holding that the homeowners have standing to raise some of their claims and that those claims are appropriate for resolution by the federal courts. The Fifth Circuit then granted rehearing en banc.

Cato filed an amicus brief on the energy companies’ behalf, arguing that homeowners lack standing to bring their suit and that the case raises a nonjusticiable political question. Our brief asserts that the homeowners’ claim does not provide a clear causal connection between the harm suffered and any particular conduct by the energy companies, and that the money damages the homeowners requested would not remedy the environmental harm alleged. More importantly, we maintain that political questions such as those surrounding climate change must be resolved by Congress, not the federal courts. Put simply, the Constitution prohibits federal courts from resolving highly technical social and economic policy debates. Permitting plaintiffs to achieve “regulation by litigation” would not only contradict settled Supreme Court precedent, but would betray the separation of powers principles embodied in the Constitution.

The Clerk has since directed the parties to brief the procedural issues surrounding the apparent lost quorum, which letter-briefs came in this week (as a mere amicus, we did not file on this).  I’ll spare you the technical details, but there are three possible ways in which the Fifth Circuit could now rule: 1) the court actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is resecheduled; 2) the panel decision is reinstated (with an ensuing cert petition appealing that decision to the Supreme Court); and 3) the district court is affirmed without opinion (the same result as when an appellate court vote is tied).  Stay tuned — this is a truly weird denouement to a hugely important case.

Of Butterflies, Tsunamis, and Draconian Recusal Standards

Last October, I blogged about Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a lawsuit in Mississippi alleging that the defendant oil, coal, utility, and chemical companies emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, which exacerbated Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson called the case “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”  In a brief that Cato was due to file this week, I framed the operative question as, “When a butterfly flaps its wings, can it be sued for the damage any subsequent tsunami causes?”

The plaintiffs asserted a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendants’ actions.  The federal district court dismissed the case but a dream panel (for the plaintiffs) of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with claims regarding public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. 

In my blog post, I predicted that the Fifth Circuit would take up the case en banc (meaning before all the judges on the court, in this case 17) and reverse the panel.  And this was all set to happen – even though eight judges recused themselves, presumably because they owned shares of defendant companies – with en banc argument slated for May 24.  I was planning to head down to New Orleans for it, in part because the judge I clerked for, E. Grady Jolly, was going to preside over the hearing (the only two more senior active judges being recused).

But a funny thing happened on the way to legal sanity.  On Friday, not half an hour after I had finished editing Cato’s brief, the court clerk issued a notice informing the parties that one more judge had recused and, therefore, the en banc court lacked a quorum.  As of this writing, I still don’t know who this judge is and what circumstances had changed since the granting of the en banc rehearing to cause the recusal.  And indeed, by all accounts the Fifth Circuit is still figuring out what to do in this unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) situation where a court loses a quorum it initially had – having already vacated the panel decision.

In short, the court could decide that the vacatur stands and either remand to a (now-confused) district court or rehear the case in a new random panel assignment.  More likely, however, the court will now reinstate the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad panel decision – and we’ll tweak our brief to make into one that supports the defendants’ inevitable cert petition.

All in all, an illustration of the absurdity both of litigating climate change politics in the courts and of forcing judges (including Supreme Court justices) to withdraw from cases for owning a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock.  If that’s all it takes to corrupt federal judges, we have bigger problems than trial lawyers run amok!

Students Have the Right to Free Speech, Too

A northern Texas school district attempted to banish all religious expression from its schools by prohibiting virtually all non-verbal student speech in any school-related context.  Officials used this broad policy to promote an anti-religious orthodoxy and root out any and all religious speech. The Supreme Court made clear, however, in its seminal school speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students enjoy First Amendment rights, and that core political and religious speech cannot be suppressed without showing that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt” the educational process.

Here, the Fifth Circuit upheld all of the district’s regulations and found that Tinker did not supply the relevant legal standard.  It instead applied the intermediate scrutiny “time, place, and manner” test of United States v. O’Brien. At issue is whether the school district’s speech policy should be evaluated under Tinker’s “substantial disruption” standard or under O’Brien’s intermediate scrutiny.

Cato, joined by three groups that promote religious liberty, filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to take up the case because the Fifth Circuit’s approach permits schools to enforce sweeping speech codes by which virtually all speech may be prohibited.  Permitting a wholesale content- and viewpoint-neutral ban on all speech or a form of speech as an alternative to the Tinker standard will result in the erosion and eventual elimination of student speech rights.

The name of the case is Morgan v. Plano Independent School District; the Court will likely decide by the end of June whether to hear the case this fall.


Next Move: Suing the Sun for Unseasonably Cool Weather

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, the federal court of appeals where I once clerked, has allowed a class action lawsuit by Hurricane Katrina victims to proceed against a motley crew of energy, oil, and chemical companies.  Their claim: that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions raised air and water temperatures on the Gulf Coast, contributing to Katrina’s strength and causing property damage.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson calls the plaintiffs’ claims “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”

In Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, the plaintiffs assert a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions.  The court dismissed several claims but held that plaintiffs indeed could allege public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence.  The court also held that these latter claims do not present a so-called “political question” that the court doesn’t have the authority to resolve.  You can read about the Court’s ruling in more detail at the WSJ Law Blog and Jackson’s Consumer Class Actions and Mass Torts Blog.

This is actually the second federal appeals court to rule this way; last month, the Second Circuit (based in New York) held that states, municipalities and certain private organizations had standing to bring federal common law nuisance claims to impose caps on certain companies’ greenhouse gas emissions.  Here’s the opinion in that case, Connecticut v. American Electric Power Company, and you can read a pretty good summary and analysis here.

Both of these cases, which herald a flood of global warming-related litigation, so to speak, owe their continuing vitality to the Supreme Court’s misbegotten 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.  The 2006-2007 Cato Supreme Court Review covered that case in an insightful article by Andrew Morriss of the University of Illinois.  (To get your copy of the latest (2008-2009) Review, go here.)

I should note from my own experience at the Fifth Circuit that the panel here consisted of the two worst judges on the court – Clinton appointees Carl Stewart and James Dennis – and one of Reagan’s weakest federal appellate appointments, Eugene Davis.  Even Davis, however, wrote separately to note that while he agreed on the standing issue, he would have affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the suit on a different ground (that pesky proximate cause issue).

I predict that the full (16-judge) Fifth Circuit will review this case en banc –and if not that the Supreme Court will eventually take it up (if the district court on remand doesn’t again dispose of the case on causation grounds).