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Kanuk v. State, Department of Natural Resources

Supreme Court of Alaska

September 12, 2014

NELSON KANUK, a minor, by and through his guardian, SHARON KANUK; ADI DAVIS, a minor, by and through her guardian, JULIE DAVIS;KATHERINE DOLMA, a minor, by and through her guardian, BRENDA DOLMA; ANANDA ROSE AHTAHKEE LANKARD, a minor, by and through her guardian, GLEN "DUNE" LANKARD; and AVERY and OWEN MOZEN, minors, by and through their guardian, HOWARD MOZEN, Appellants,

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, No. 3AN-11-07474 CI Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Sen K. Tan, Judge.

Brad D. DeNoble, Eagle River, for Appellants. Seth M. Beausang, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

Peter Van Tuyn, Rebecca L. Bernard, and Teresa B. Clemmer, Bessenyey & Van Tuyn, L.L.C., Anchorage, for Amici Curiae Law Professors. Gabriel W. Scott, Cordova, for Amicus Curiae Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.


MAASSEN, Justice.


The appellants in this case are minors from communities across Alaska who claim that the State has violated its duties under the Alaska Constitution and the public trust doctrine by failing to take steps to protect the atmosphere in the face of significant and potentially disastrous climate change. The minors argue that the superior court erred when it dismissed their complaint on grounds that their claims were not justiciable — specifically, that the claims involved political questions best answered by other branches of state government. On that basis we affirm the dismissal of the claims asking the court to set specific standards for carbon dioxide emissions and to order the State to implement reductions in accordance with those standards.

The minors also sought a declaratory judgment on the nature of the State's duty to protect the atmosphere; the claims for declaratory relief do not present political questions. We nonetheless affirm their dismissal, because in the absence of justiciable claims for specific relief, a declaratory judgment will not settle the parties' controversy or otherwise provide them with clear guidance about the consequences of their future conduct.


In May 2011, six Alaskan children (the plaintiffs), [1] acting through their guardians, filed suit in the superior court against the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources, seeking declaratory and equitable relief. The plaintiffs contended that the State breached "its public trust obligations [under] [a]rticle VIII of the Alaska Constitution" by failing "to protect the atmosphere from the effects of climate change and secure a future for Plaintiffs and Alaska's children."[2] The plaintiffs alleged facts showing that each of them has been individually and directly harmed by climate change. They asked the superior court for a declaratory judgment holding (1) that "the atmosphere is a public trust resource under [a]rticle VIII, " which (2) the State "has an affirmative fiduciary obligation to protect and preserve, " and (3) that the State "has failed to uphold its fiduciary obligations." They also asked the court to declare that the parameters of the State's duty to protect the atmosphere are (4) "dictated by the best available science and that said science requires carbon dioxide emissions to peak in 2012 and be reduced by at least 6% each year until 2050, " and (5) that the duty is "enforceable by citizen beneficiaries of the public trust." Finally, the plaintiffs asked the court to order the State (6) "to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from Alaska by at least 6% per year from 2013 through at least 2050, " and (7) "to prepare a full and accurate accounting of Alaska's current carbon dioxide emissions and to do so annually thereafter."

The State moved to dismiss the complaint under Alaska Civil Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).[3] Following oral argument, the superior court issued a written decision holding that all the claims made in the complaint were non-justiciable and granting the motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The plaintiffs filed this appeal.[4]


"We review a motion to dismiss de novo, construing the complaint liberally and accepting as true all factual allegations. In reviewing a motion to dismiss, we do not consider materials outside the complaint and its attachments."[5] "[M]otions to dismiss are disfavored, " and before dismissal will be granted it must be "beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would entitle him or her to relief."[6] "Even if the relief demanded is unavailable, the claim should not be dismissed as long as some relief might be available on the basis of the alleged facts."[7] "We view the facts in the best light for the nonmovant . . . and draw all reasonable inferences in [that party's] favor."[8]

"Matters of constitutional . . . interpretation are questions of law, which we review de novo, "[9] "adopt[ing] the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason and policy."[10] Because we are "the ultimate arbiter" of issues such as standing, mootness, and ripeness, we review de novo the question of whether a case should be dismissed on prudential grounds.[11]


A. The Plaintiffs Have Standing.

We first address the State's challenge to the plaintiffs' standing. A standing inquiry asks whether the plaintiff is "a proper party to request an adjudication of a particular issue."[12] We interpret the concept broadly in favor of "increased accessibility to judicial forums."[13]

1. The plaintiffs have interest-injury standing.

We recognize two types of standing: interest-injury standing and citizen-taxpayer standing.[14] The plaintiffs here claim interest-injury standing, which means they must show a "sufficient personal stake in the outcome of the controversy to ensure the requisite adversity."[15] "[T]he degree of injury to interest need not be great: an identifiable trifle is enough for standing to fight out a question of principle."[16] "The affected interest may be economic or intangible, such as an aesthetic or environmental interest."[17]

The amended complaint in this case alleged injuries from climate change that were both specific and personal:

8. Nelson [Kanuk] has been personally affected by climate change due to erosion from ice melt and flooding from increased temperatures. In December 2008, ice and water flooded the village, causing Nelson and his family as well as many others in his village to have to evacuate their homes. This erosion, flood, melting ice and increased temperatures threaten the foundation of ...

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