N.D. Cal. Judge Martin Jenkins has granted Defendants' motion to dismiss California's lawsuit against them (California v. General Motors) on the basis of non-justiciability. California had sued six automakers arguing that emissions from the cars they made constituted a public nuisance.
The lawsuit alleged nothing beyond nuisance, and sought to hold the automakers liable for any and all damages arising in California due to auto emissions. Thus, the question did not hinge on whether automakers could have made their cars more fuel efficient, nor whether they hid information on the dangers of carbon monoxide emissions. This suit rested on a simple proposition: car makers make cars, cars make emissions, emissons are bad, car makers should pay for whatever has occurred.
Of course, this decision will be seen by some as a loss for environmental concerns. However, despite understanding the need for action on global warming, I have to support Jenkins choice in passing on the issue. Resolving this suit is not a proper role for the courts.
This case would have called on a District Court judge and maybe a jury to make a determination of whether or not society should use cars. That's it... there is no question about the degree to which we should use cars, nor whether our interests in using cars exceeds other interests we might have (such as clean air), nor whether cars can be cleaner. No, the sole question here is whether use of cars, and the environmental degradation that results, should subject six automakers to liability.
Therein lies the beauty of the non-justiciability decision: this is a public policy question best resolved through political processes, not through the courts. The justiciability doctrine is not often invoked by the courts, but Jenkins made the right call here. If a court can be called on to balance the utility of automobiles versus their environmental impact, what questions will a court not answer? Why bother to have democratic political processes at all if the courts can answer all of our policy questions?
Even assuming (without agreeing) that there may be a valid public nuisance claim (a legal finding that, on balance, the costs of cars in terms of environmental degradation exceeeds the social utility and other considerations of making them available for use), that would still leave us with the question of where liability for cars should lie. Should it lie with automakers? Drivers? What about the UAW?
Heck, why not sue God for making all those dinosaurs decompose into viscous, combustible liquids?
Here's to smacking down a lawsuit that many saw as nothing but a publicity stunt on the part of
Ed Jerry Brown, anyway. Perhaps the court will now have time to consider serious environmental litigation .