Climate Activists Win in Minnesota Supreme Court, Setting Stage for Historic Climate Necessity Trial

Climate Defense Project

July 17, 2018

Contact: Kelsey Skaggs, (510) 883-3118 ;

The Minnesota Supreme Court today ordered that a groundbreaking climate protest case be allowed to proceed, setting the stage for one of the nation’s first trials involving the climate necessity defense. The case — which stems from a 2016 act of civil disobedience in which the four defendants helped to turn off the flow of tar sands oil through a cross-border pipeline — has worked its way through the court system as prosecutors have repeatedly tried and failed to prevent the defendants from presenting evidence about the dangers of climate change and the need for direct action. Today’s decision leaves in place a lower court decision allowing the activists to present a climate necessity defense — the first written decision in the United States allowing a climate necessity defense before a jury — with a trial date anticipated some time this fall.

Activists across the country have recently secured significant advances in the recognition of the climate necessity defense, which allows defendants to argue that their acts of civil disobedience were justified by the need to address the climate crisis. In March, a judge in Massachusetts held several activists not responsible by reason of necessity for their actions during a series of anti-pipeline protests in Boston. In Spokane, a trial judge allowed an activist who had blocked coal and oil trains to present a climate necessity defense before a jury; prosecutors are currently appealing that decision. Other cases involving the “Shut It Down” protests, in which the Minnesota defendants participated, have seen judges reject the activists’ right to present their preferred evidence and are currently being appealed.

In the Minnesota case, prosecutors unsuccessfully sought to block the defendants’ necessity defense, which will include expert testimony on the science of climate change and the efficacy of nonviolent civil disobedience. In April, the Minnesota Court of Appeals wrote in an unpublished opinion that “necessity is an effective defense to a criminal charge if the harm that would have resulted from compliance with the law would have significantly exceeded the harm actually resulting from the defendant’s breach of the law,” finding that the defendants’ evidence met this test. Today’s brief decision from the state’s highest court denied the prosecution’s petition for review without making any findings of law.

“The upcoming trial will be a referendum on failed climate policy and the need for nonviolent civil disobedience,” said Alice Cherry, a staff attorney with Climate Defense Project, a legal nonprofit that represents the Minnesota activists and other climate necessity defendants.

Other attorneys working on the case include Tim Phillips of Minneapolis and Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. A scheduling order from the trial court is expected in coming weeks.

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