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New Mexico District Court Declines to Wade into Juliana Justiciability Waters

The First Judicial District New Mexico Court for Santa Fe County’s (“New Mexico District Court”) recent decision denying the State’s motion to dismiss in Atencio, et al. v. State of New Mexico provides little to no insight into the viability of the claims in this case. However, recent, related decisions out of the Ninth Circuit may provide a preview of things to come as this order proceeds to review by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

A. Background

In Atencio, et al. v. State of New Mexico, et al., several plaintiffs allege that the State of New Mexico, the New Mexico Legislature, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Environment Department, Secretary James Kenney, the Energy Minerals & Natural Resources Department, Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst, the Environmental Improvement Board, and the Oil Conservation Commission violated their constitutional rights by authorizing and promoting oil and gas production without assuring the protection of the environment. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that they are “frontline” community members located near oil and gas production sites, and that New Mexico’s continued authorization and promotion of oil and gas production without establishing and implementing a sufficient statutory, regulatory, and enforcement scheme is detrimental to New Mexico’s environment, as well as violative of the New Mexico Constitution’s “Pollution Control,” Substantive Due Process, and Equal Protection Clauses.

On May 2, 2024, the New Mexico Environment Department and Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department (the “Department”) filed a Notice of Supplemental Authority in support of its Motion to Dismiss, in which the Department submitted the Ninth Circuit’s grant of mandamus[1] in Juliana v. United States, directing the Oregon District Court to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint without allowing them the ability to amend their claims. In effect, the Department’s action reversed the District Court’s decision in Juliana v. United States, discussed in detail below.

B. Juliana holding

In Juliana, 21 plaintiffs filed suit in the Federal District Court for the District of Oregon, claiming that the government violated a putative “right to a stable climate system that can sustain human life” by allowing oil and gas production. The plaintiffs lost on dismissal and appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing to bring such a claim and remanded the case back to the district court with instructions to dismiss for lack of standing. See Juliana v. United States, 947 F.3d 1159, 1175 (9th Cir. 2020). The district court, however, allowed the plaintiffs to amend their claims for relief, despite the Ninth Circuit’s instructions otherwise, and the government again moved to dismiss. The district court denied the government’s motion, prompting the government to petition for mandamus from the Ninth Circuit requesting enforcement of the earlier mandate that directed the district court to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims without the opportunity to amend their claims.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit granted the government’s petition. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit held that a district court must implement both the letter and spirit of the mandate and consider the opinion and the circumstances it embraces. Regarding the Juliana plaintiffs’ claims, the Ninth Circuit analyzed the three essential factors a plaintiff is required to establish to have standing under Article III: “(1) a concrete and particularized injury that (2) is caused by the challenged conduct and (3) is likely redressable by a favorable judicial decision.” Id. at 1168.

Although the Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiffs satisfied the first two factors, it held that the plaintiffs’ declaratory relief was “not substantially likely to mitigate the plaintiffs’ asserted concrete injuries.” More specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs’ requests for declaratory and injunctive relief were not justiciable because the plaintiffs failed to articulate how the court could redress their alleged injuries. Id. at 1169-70. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit refused to identify the plaintiffs’ potential redressability because “it is beyond the power of an Article III court to order, design, supervise, or implement the plaintiffs’ requested remedial plan.” Id. at 1171.

Rather than follow the Ninth Circuit’s directive, the district court allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint to fix any issues identified in the Motion to Dismiss because (1) the Ninth Circuit did not expressly preclude amendment and (2) intervening authority compelled a different result. The Ninth Circuit rejected both reasons, first maintaining that it has expressly provided instructions for dismissal for lack of Article III standing. The Ninth Circuit’s mandate and its spirit left no room for amendment.

Next, the Ninth Circuit addressed whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s analysis of whether nominal damages could redress a past injury, i.e., satisfy the redressability element to satisfying Article III standing, and whether that analysis changed the law, thereby allowing the district court to ignore the Ninth Circuit’s mandate. The district court relied on Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a United States Supreme Court case that asked, “[W]hether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury.” 141 S. Ct. 792, 796 (2021). The Ninth Circuit held that the Uzuegbunam case was a retrospective damages case that was entirely silent about the redressability for prospective declaratory judgments and stressed that nothing in the Uzuegbunam case changed the law with respect to the relief sought by the plaintiffs.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring their claims and renewed its instruction to the district court to dismiss without leave to amend.

C. Atencio holding

On June 10, 2024, the New Mexico District Court denied New Mexico’s Motion to Dismiss, despite the Juliana holding. In denying dismissal, the New Mexico District Court narrowly tailored its inquiry as to whether the Plaintiffs’ complaint sufficiently raised its claims for relief.

The New Mexico District Court concluded that the Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to support a claim for declaratory relief, as well as sufficient facts to argue that Defendants violated certain inherent rights, substantive due process rights, and rights afforded under the equal protection laws of the New Mexico Constitution.

The New Mexico District Court further found that resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims regarding their alleged Constitutional guarantee of a beautiful and healthy environment and to be free of pollution was improper for resolution on New Mexico’s motion. It therefore denied the State’s motion to dismiss.

D. Ramifications

Unfortunately, the New Mexico District Court’s short opinion refrained from substantively analyzing any of the legal arguments raised by the State. It did not provide any insight as to the redressability of the Plaintiffs’ claimed injuries or the likelihood of success of their claims. Nevertheless, while the State did not prevail at this stage of the litigation, the plaintiffs must now substantiate their broad claims.

Beatty & Wozniak’s attorneys will continue to follow this and related lawsuits and their impacts on the industry.  Please contact Devon D.A. Bell at [email protected] or Miguel Suazo at [email protected] for more information.