Today in Richmond, Virginia, the 13 youth plaintiffs in Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia had their first day in court. With over 100 supporters of the young Virginians present in two courtrooms and at a post-hearing press conference, attorneys from Our Children’s Trust and local counsel argued before Judge Clarence N. Jenkins Jr. that the youths’ case should proceed to trial.Watch the press conference, livestreamed from outside the courthouse immediately after oral arguments, to hear directly from youth plaintiffs and attorneys in this case!
|However, despite clear and compelling arguments from the youths’ attorneys, the judge ruled from the bench in favor of the Commonwealth, citing “sovereign immunity” and stating with no analysis that the Virginia state government is immune from being sued for violating Virginia citizens’ rights to life and liberty, which are protected by the Virginia Constitution Bill of Rights. Judge Jenkins Jr. stated in his ruling that “the court will not address the merits” of youth plaintiffs’ constitutional claims and he will dismiss the case.
Today’s ruling from the bench was wrong, undemocratic, and unconstitutional. Learn why below.
The youth plaintiffs in Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia are now preparing to appeal!Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia plaintiffs speak at post-hearing press conference,
September 16, 2022 (Photo by Robin Loznak)What You Can Do!
Here are THREE actions you can take today in support of these young plaintiffs:
Sign a Wall of Support
Stand in solidarity with these courageous young climate leaders as they continue their quest for justice! Sign an online wall of support and show these young Virginians that people across the state, and around the world, support their fight for climate justice in the Commonwealth of Virginia!
Join Our Amazing Community of Donors
Perhaps most importantly, you can have an enormous impact for these young people and their case by joining our invaluable community of donors today. Thanks to the generosity of our community, we are able to provide expert legal representation and support to young climate leaders in Virginia, across the United States, and around the world, all at no cost to them or their families. Your support is especially critical as this case continues its legal journey in Virginia so please consider donating today!
Stay Tuned for Next Steps + Future Actions
Be sure to join or stay on our mailing list and follow us on social media (@youthvgov on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to hear about future developments in this case, including how you can take action to support the Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia youth plaintiffs as their case proceeds toward justice!“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. To quote one of my favorite scientists, Jane Goodall, ‘What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’ This is the lasting difference I hope we will make, not as individuals, but together as Virginians.”- Layla H., youth plaintiffOne More Thing: Learn About
Why “Sovereign Immunity” is a Danger in Our Democracy
Here’s a quick primer: The Virginia Constitution was adopted in 1776. Thomas Jefferson used parts of it in writing the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution and our Bill of Rights also adopt the principles of the Virginia Constitution. Many state constitutions do the same. What all of these foundational documents did was reject tyranny (at the time it was the monarchy of King George III….*think Hamilton the musical*), transfer “sovereignty” to the People from the King (a radical idea at the time!), and create an independent judiciary to act as a check on two other branches of government so that those branches didn’t consolidate too much power away from the People and start to act tyrannically again.
The far right legal think tanks in our country have been waging war on those principles, trying to consolidate power in government and away from the People, who they see as a threat to their interests. One of their important strategies is to close the courthouse doors to the People, in addition to closing the polling places and locking the ballot boxes.
This “sovereign immunity” defense has never applied to cases where the People are seeking declaratory judgment to protect their fundamental constitutional rights from government harm, which is precisely what the youth plaintiffs in Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia are seeking to secure. If courts slam close the courthouse doors of justice, they take away the power of the People to protect themselves from government abuses, and consolidate power in the other branches of government, like the General Assembly in Virginia. When courts do this, they defy our nation’s foundational principles of justice and open the door to a return to tyranny. Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia plaintiffs and their attorneys at Richmond City Circuit Court, September 16, 2022 (Photo by Robin Loznak)Still With Us? Keep Reading…
This next piece gets even geekier, but stick with us, because democracy depends on all of us caring about a just legal system and our constitutional protections: Blackstone’s Commentaries by St. George Tucker is a legal treatise from 1803 that the U.S. Supreme Court loves to cite when it decides cases based on theories of “originalism.”
Here’s what it says about sovereignty: “the union of the SOVEREIGNTY of a state with the GOVERNMENT, constitutes a state of USURPATION and absolute TYRANNY, over the PEOPLE…But no people can ever be free, whose government is founded upon the usurpation of their sovereign rights; for by the act of usurpation, the sovereignty is transferred from the people, in whom alone it can legitimately reside, to those who by that act have manifested a determination to oppress them.”
Nate Bellinger, Senior Staff Attorney at Our Children’s Trust who argued for the Plaintiffs in court today, explains it this way:
“This type of ruling in the Commonwealth is dangerous and undermines the very foundation of democracy. 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. In 1776, Virginians adopted a constitution and a bill of rights that empowered the people to protect life, liberty, and property against government abuse. It formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the bill of rights in the U.S. Constitution. Today, Judge Jenkins Jr. closed the courthouse door to all Virginians seeking to protect their most fundamental rights, those of life and freedom. This type of ruling would shut the courthouse door to protecting First Amendment rights to free speech and religious expression, to Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and many more. This ruling cannot stand. There is no Supreme Court precedent to support it and it should be overturned. We will stand up for democracy and a safe climate on behalf of our young clients and appeal this unjust decision that threatens democracy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Confused? Concerned? Fired up and want to learn more about these really important constitutional issues and how we fight back, for our children, our climate, and our democracy? Reply to this email with the words “Count me in!” and we’ll contact you soon to join us for an online event to discuss these critically important topics.
While today’s ruling flies in the face of our foundational principles of democracy since 1776, the journey toward justice for these young plaintiffs is only just beginning. Thank you for your ongoing and unwavering support of these 13 young Virginians and their right to a safe climate in the Commonwealth. Donate now to help us build the strongest appeal possible, including mobilizing partner organizations, fellow litigators, and experts in democracy from across the country.
Onward to appeal!
Your Relentless Team at Our Children’s Trust