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Oregon Appeals Court knocks public trust doctrine; Multnomah County seeks to file amicus curiae

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Multnomah County chair Deborah Kafoury announces the county's legal action on Friday, March 8 while flanked by student plaintiffs in the Oregon climate kids lawsuit.  The kids pushing state leaders to take action on climate change will address their pleas to the Oregon Supreme Court — after the students found the door locked at the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The Appeals Court formally rejected the state case, Chernaik v. Brown, on Jan. 9. And while there's no guarantee that Oregon's highest court will agree to hear arguments, the children (and their lawyers) made a full-court press to reporters after filing the petition March 8.

"Even the attorneys representing the defendants are not debating the science" said Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, the now 22-year-old University of Oregon environmental science major who filed the case at age 14.

Instead, the suit "is a matter of accountability, responsibility, urgency," she said. "Who are we representing, and on whose timeline?"

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Kelsey Juliana, now 22, was an original participant in Chernaik v. Brown, which was filed when she was 14. Juliana is a plaintiff in the federal climate-change lawsuit filed in the U.S. District of Oregon in 2015 as well. That case is currently slogging its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes episode.

Also on March 8, Multnomah County chair Deborah Kafoury announced that her board of commissioners will seek to file an amicus curiae — friend of the court — brief with the Oregon Supreme Court. The document, if permitted, will attempt to bolster the students' claims.

"These amazing youth, who have so much of their lives ahead of them, will live with the nightmare of uncontrollable climate change unless we take action now," Kafoury said, noting that wildfires, ocean acidity and unseasonable early snow melts already impact Oregonians.

Chernaik v. Brown hinges on the state's responsibility to protect the public trust — an ancient legal doctrine that dates back to the Roman emperor Justinian. For the last 100 years, Oregon case law has applied the public trust doctrine to waterways and riverbanks, but the students' lawyers hope to expand that definition to include other shared uses, such as fishing, commerce and energy production.

Courtney Johnson, an attorney with the Portland firm Crag Law, says those uses are threatened by climate change. She thinks the Oregon Supreme Court will expand the doctrine.

"It's a big road ahead, but we think we have a really good shot," Johnson said.

Students in Oregon and across the globe are planning a school walkout, including local school strikes and a Portland City Hall rally, on Friday, March 15. One of the organizers is Lincoln High senior Bella Klosterman, a member of the Portland Youth Climate Council.

"We will no longer tolerate the lack of climate action which threatens our very future," Klosterman said. "The government might not really be prepared to see what is going to come from us."

Beaverton resident Isaac Vergun is a co-plaintiff with Juliana on the federal case. At the press conference on the top floor of the county's Hawthorne Boulevard headquarters, he called on Washington County leadership to join with Kafoury and Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Sharon Meieran.

"We are going to be the generation to hold the planet in our hands," he said. "Even though we need the adults to help us and support us in this endeavor, we also need youth action." PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Isaac Vergun, left, and Bella Klosterman are helping plan school strikes on Friday, March 15 protesting inaction on climate change.

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