WASHINGTON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices
on Tuesday appeared to lean toward energy companies in a dispute
over a lawsuit filed by the city of Baltimore seeking monetary
damages for the impact of global climate change.
The justices heard arguments on a legal issue that will help
determine whether the lawsuit and others like it will be heard
in a state court, as the city would prefer, or in a federal
court, which corporate defendants generally view as a more
favorable venue. The arguments did not address the underlying
merits of Baltimore claims.
The Maryland city's suit targets 21 U.S. and foreign energy
companies that extract, produce, distribute or sell fossil fuels
including BP PLC, Chevron Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp
and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
Some of the eight justices taking part in the case appeared
skeptical about the position taken by Baltimore's lawyers during
the argument held by teleconference.
The court has a 6-3 conservative majority but conservative
Justice Samuel Alito did not participate, likely because he owns
stock in two oil companies involved in the litigation. If the
court is divided 4-4 in its eventual ruling - due by the end of
June - an earlier ruling in Baltimore's favor by the Richmond,
Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would stand.
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh described the case as a
"close call" but pointed out among other things that Baltimore's
arguments conflicted with a ruling written by the late liberal
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1996.
"It's never good to be on the wrong side of Justice Ginsburg
opinions," Kavanaugh said of his former colleague who died in
The outcome is likely to affect around a dozen similar
lawsuits by U.S. states, cities and counties seeking to hold
such companies liable for the impact of climate change.
Baltimore and the other jurisdictions are seeking damages
under state law for the harms they said they have sustained due
to climate change, which they attribute in part to the
companies' role in producing fossil fuels that produce carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The claims involve oil
production and marketing, not the harmful emissions themselves.
The plaintiffs have said they have had to spend more on
infrastructure such as flood-control measures to combat
sea-level rise caused by a warming climate.
The legal question concerns a provision of federal law that
puts limits on appeals courts reviewing decisions by a federal
district court judge to remand a case to state court. The
companies have said that in this instance the 4th Circuit had
broad scope to review a district court's decision because of a
provision that allows for appeals of such rulings when a case
directly concerns federal officials or government entities.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the applicable law
was enacted to prevent delays in resolving cases, and that
giving the energy companies a broad right to appeal could have
the opposite effect.
"That means added time, added delay," Breyer said.
The energy companies have argued that oil production is an
inherently federal issue in which the government plays a key
role, meaning the case should be heard in federal court.
Greenhouse gas emissions that cross state and international
lines are likewise an issue that cannot be addressed under state
laws, the companies asserted.
Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not heed calls
from some activists that she not participate because her father
formerly worked as a lawyer for a Shell subsidiary.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)