Richmond Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Alleging That Virginia Violates Constitution by Permitting Fossil Fuel Production

A Richmond City Circuit Court judge dismissed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia from an environmental activism legal organization on Friday. In a lawsuit on behalf of 13 Virginia youth, Our Children’s Trust (OCT) argued that Virginia’s policies permitting fossil fuel production and use harmed the plaintiffs’ rights, but the judge agreed with the Office of the Attorney General’s argument that Virginia can’t be sued due to sovereign immunity doctrine, according to

For decades, Defendants have implemented a policy and practice of approving permits for fossil fuel infrastructure in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including permits for the production, transport, and burning of fossil fuels. Defendants’ historic and ongoing permitting of fossil fuel infrastructure has, and continues to, cause dangerous levels of greenhouse gas pollution, including carbon dioxide,” the lawsuit complaint filed in February states.

The complaint in Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia argued that this practice violates the plaintiffs’ due process rights and rights under the public trust doctrine.

“Pursuant to the jus publicum (also referred to as the public trust doctrine), the Commonwealth of Virginia has the sovereign duty to hold the public domain for the benefit of the public. Defendants cannot ‘relinquish, surrender, alienate, destroy, or substantially impair’ the rights of the people inherent to the jus publicum unless authorized by the Virginia Constitution. The Conservation Article of Virginia’s Constitution recognizes that protection of Virginia’s atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction is part of the jus publicum,” the complaint states.

Among the relief requested, plaintiffs wanted the courts to declare that jus publicum includes “the right to use atmosphere, land, and waters protected from pollution” and that the Virginia Gas and Oil Act violates plaintiffs’ rights and is unconstitutional.

“Simply put, this action belongs two blocks over at the General Assembly and not before this court,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sanford said according to

OCT is also currently suing four other states: Hawaii, Montana, Utah, and Florida. In Alaska and in Washington, OCT appealed cases up to the state supreme courts, where they were blocked. Legal proceedings are ongoing in federal case Juliana v. United States.

In a Friday press release, OCT said the plaintiffs will appeal the Virginia lawsuit and noted that Judge Clarence Jenkins Jr. declined to address the merits of the lawsuit.

“This type of ruling in the Commonwealth is dangerous and undermines the very foundation of democracy,” OCT Senior Staff Attorney Nate Bellinger said in the release. “The government is not an all-powerful sovereign in a democracy that is called tyranny. We, the People, are sovereign and our government gets its power from us.”

Plaintiff Layla H. said in the release, “It seems like every possible indication of the world being in a state of crisis has shown its face, every alarm bell has been rung … and yet nothing. We, as plaintiffs and youth activists, will not wait any longer to do what must be done. I hope, for my and future generations’ sake, that the right decision will be made in court in the future and we will be able to take our case further.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Oil Pump” by Yuri Shkoda.

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