People of the State of California v. General Motors Corporation et al. (Sept. 17, 2007, C06-05755) ___Cal.App.4th ___;

By Maria J. Gangemi


In a major case brought by the State of California seeking to hold automakers liable for global warming, District Judge Martin Jenkins in San Francisco granted defendants’ motion to dismiss the State’s nuisance causes of action under federal and state law.  The judge determined that it was a non-justiciable political question.

Issue:  This case represents California’s effort to hold automakers accountable for climate change.  The State of California brought two causes of action against various automakers for creating, contributing to, and maintaining global warming.  Causes of action for (1) public nuisance under federal common law, and (2) public nuisance under California law were alleged.  Arguing that the State had improperly attempted to create a new global warming tort with no legitimate origins in federal or state law, defendants moved to dismiss the two claims as non-justiciable political questions, for failure to state a claim under federal or California law, and as preempted by federal law.

Reasoning:      After considering the chronology of relevant environmental policy on global warming, including Congressional, Presidential, and international actions, the court turned to the "threshhold issue"—whether the complaint raises non-justiciable political questions beyond the limits of the court’s jurisdiction.

Citing Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 211 (1962), the court discussed six "formulations" that indicate the existence of a non-justiciable political question in light of the Constitutional doctrine of separation of powers: (1) a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; (2) a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; (3) the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; (4) the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of the government; (5) an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; and (6) the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

Noting that the six analyses often overlap or collapse into each other, the court determined that the third was the most relevant.  The court’s resolution of the State’s federal common law nuisance claim would require the court to make an initial policy decision, clearly placing this issue into the non-justiciable category.  The court concluded that precedent affirmed that in order to resolve typical air pollution cases, courts must strike a balance between interests seeking strict schemes to reduce pollution rapidly to eliminate its social costs and interests advancing the economic concern that strict schemes will retard industrial development with attendant social costs.  Balancing these interests, along with other interests involved, was impossible without an "initial policy determination" first having been made by Congress and the President.

The court further noted the political branches’ actions and deliberate inactions in the area of global warming as supporting a determination that this case was not one for judicial discretion.  Reductions in carbon dioxide emissions was an issue still under active consideration by the political branches of government.  Congress had established a comprehensive state and federal scheme to control air pollution (the Clean Air Act) and a comprehensive response to the energy crisis of the 1970’s (the Energy Policy and Conservation Act).  Although the CAA and EPCA do not directly address the issue of global warming and carbon dioxide emission standards, the court concluded that when read in conjunction with the prevalence of national and international debate and the resulting policy actions and inactions, the two acts indicated that the court would be injecting itself into the debate would require an initial policy determination of the type reserved for the political branches.  Because a comprehensive global warming solution must be achieved by a broad array of domestic and international measures that are yet undefined, it would be premature and inappropriate for the court to make such a determination as the State asked before the elected branches did so.

Other factors outlined in Baker weighed in favor of the same conclusion.  The court concluded that the State’s claim implicated a textually demonstrable Constitutional commitment to the political branches.  The State argued that its environmental nuisance claim was committed to the federal judiciary and had no import on interstate commerce or foreign policy.  Rejecting the State’s argument, the court reasoned that recognizing such a new and unprecedented federal common law nuisance claim for damages would likely have commerce implications in other states, potentially exposing various entities to damages for doing nothing more than lawfully engaging in their respective spheres of commerce.  As for foreign policy, the political branches had deliberately elected to refrain from any unilateral commitment to reducing such emissions as were at issue domestically in this case, unless developing nations made a reciprocal commitment.  The EPA had also recognized that imposing mandatory unilateral restrictions on domestic manufacturers would impede that diplomatic objective.  Furthermore, awarding the State damages here would punish defendants for lawfully selling their automobiles both in California and abroad.

Finally, there was a lack of judicially discoverable or manageable standards by which to resolve the State’s claim.  The State had failed to provide convincing legal authority to support its proposition that the legal framework for assessing global warming nuisance damages was well?established.  The court found itself lacking guidance to determine what was an unreasonable contribution to the sum of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, or who should bear costs associated with the global climate change that admittedly results from multiple sources around the globe.

For more information please contact Maria Gangemi.  Maria Gangemi is an associate in the Business Trial Practice Group in the firm’s Los Angeles office.