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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit seeking coal and oil train ban in downtown Spokane gets hearing

Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane climate activists hoping to overturn a federal law they say prevents them from pursuing an outright ban on coal and oil trains through downtown ran into a skeptical judge Wednesday morning.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Rice did not rule immediately on whether to dismiss a claim brought by Dr. Gunnar Holmquist and individual members of the “Raging Grannies” protest group claiming a federal law blocks their right to address global climate change at the local level. But the Barack Obama appointee repeatedly told the group’s attorney they had political avenues for addressing their concerns and might be legally challenging the wrong people.

“You’re suing the policeman for what other people are doing,” Rice said from the bench Wednesday morning, in front of a group of about 30 supporters who filled the gallery of his courtroom at the Thomas S. Foley Courthouse in downtown Spokane.

The lawsuit brought by Holmquist and others alleges a 1995 federal law blocks their ability to seek local laws granting what they argue is a Constitutional right to a livable climate, citing a ruling from an Oregon federal judge.

“No federal law can violate the rights of the people,” Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, a Port Angeles-based attorney and Gonzaga Law School graduate representing the group, told Rice.

Rice asked Schromen-Wawrin where in the Constitution citizens were granted the right to a livable climate. The ruling cited by the Spokane activists, by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ann Aiken, is likely headed for an appeal once the case has been tried, after manufacturing and petroleum trade groups unsuccessfully sought appellate review of the decision before a trial could take place. Echoing the arguments of the Department of Justice, represented by Washington D.C.-based attorney Serena Maya Orloff, Rice said the law doesn’t prevent citizens from seeking relief through electing new representatives who could change it.

“You say they don’t have the power to touch (coal and oil in rail cars), but they do,” Rice said.

George Taylor, a Lutheran pastor and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said after the hearing citizens had tried to overturn the laws at the federal level and failed, leading them to seek relief in the courts.

“The federal government holds all the cards here,” Taylor said. “Yes, I agree we should approach legislative, judicial and executive, all of the above. But here, we’re just saying the city of Spokane should have the authority to regulate, to some degree, the products that come through the city.”

Schromen-Wawrin said after the hearing that it is the role of the courts to step in when a law is preventing a right, after acknowledging to Rice there isn’t explicit language on climate rights in the Constitution.

“It is a question about the structure of our democracy, and does Congress have the power to set the ceiling on the health, safety and rights protections we have,” he said.

Rice said he’d issue a written order in the coming days whether to dismiss the case.