Updated: Sep 23, 2020

(Photo: Eric Fredericks/flickr)

On January 27, 2020, the Stanford Daily published the following article, available in full below. To access the article on the Stanford Daily website, click here.

We at Stanford tend to be ambitious. We have high expectations for ourselves and our communities, and we fancy ourselves committed to the advancement of humankind. The intergenerational task of improving our world is a movement beyond borders and across continents. It is an extraordinary affair that requires the efforts of billions worldwide. Because of the immensity of our mission we often strive to become involved in national and international efforts first and foremost. 

But rather than validate this commonplace emphasis, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the United States proves how wrong-headed such a worldview can be. Among the many lessons that this pandemic, and our response to it, can teach us is the continuing importance of the federalist system, wherein power is not only distributed horizontally among institutions but also vertically across jurisdictions. Where the national government flails, states and localities make up lost ground. But beyond our civilizational response to this virus, the cities, townships and regions of the United States can — and should — do so much more. 

Some issues, like climate change and international violence, require bold action within the halls of national and international institutions. I do not in any way dismiss those endeavors. Instead, I offer a message important for our mission to improve the world: We must collectively involve ourselves at every level of government and become individually involved at different places at different times. 

Consider California. It is among the wealthiest economies in the world. From its agriculture sector to Hollywood’s entertainment industries to Silicon Valley, California’s economy is among the most productive on Earth. Yet the people of California, through their government, continue to tolerate — and thereby perpetuate — wealth inequality, homelessness and the mistreatment of precious people in the incarceration crisis. California could, but does not, guarantee Californians medical care as a fundamental human right. 

These societal shortcomings are areas of immediate concern, and greater involvement at the state and local levels is an important method by which to move the needle toward justice. State capitals, county governments and municipalities should enter our collective consciousness as centers of both justice and injustice, as places where many people — including some elected officials — are already trying to make a difference, and as opportunities for our own involvement in the service and advancement of society. 

During high school, I was the student member of the board of trustees of my local high school district. This board of education comprises six people: five adults elected by voters in five geographic areas and one student member elected by a team of students from the district’s high schools. The school district I attended serves over 20,000 teenagers in a community called the Antelope Valley, where Los Angeles County meets the Mojave Desert. 

In the middle of my tenure on the school board, three of my colleagues completed their terms, and three newly elected persons began their service to the public as members of the board. Transitions in leadership often mean changes to institutional culture, but the changes enacted by a newly minted majority of three persons — two of whom were new arrivals to the board and one of whom had been serving on it — were devastating to the school district and the wider community. The reason why three of six people constituted a majority is that as the student trustee I had a vote recorded in the minutes but not counted in the result. 

As a result of the misconduct of the three-person majority, hundreds of teachers and other district personnel were delayed or denied raises. A long-time public servant and mentor of mine who had been the district’s general counsel for longer than I have been alive was fired because she refused to endorse their misconduct. A $400-an-hour attorney with a pattern of problematic behavior and no expertise in education law was subsequently hired even though the district had already secured the counsel of a law firm specializing in education law. He infamously fell asleep at a meeting during which he cost the district, per hour, more than 26 times Los Angeles County’s minimum wage. A contract worth tens of thousands of dollars to review school safety was awarded to a known friend of a board member who had created the security consultancy company one month before the contract’s conferral. The consultancy firm had no previous clients. And my rights as the student trustee were repeatedly shirked when I publicly opposed my colleagues’ misconduct. A motion I made was ignored, and my right to speak was threatened

My three colleagues also sought personal websites, paid for by the school district, from a web design company associated with one of the board members. The company wanted to charge $5,000 per website and aimed to charge over $1,000 per month per site to keep the sites up to date. The $400-an-hour attorney even claimed it was legal to pay for personal websites with public funds, a claim the district’s then-still-employed general counsel dismissed as false. 

Some of these misdeeds are silly. Others imposed hardship on hardworking professionals who have dedicated their careers to the students of the Antelope Valley Union High School District. All of the wrongdoings, whether large or small, occurred because of a simple reason: Persons not fit for office were elected to office. 

Across the United States, and around the world, so many electoral decisions are made by voters with very limited information, especially regarding local candidates like those campaigning to become school board members, city councilors and state legislators. Yet all elected positions matter deeply, because all levels of government involve the public’s funds and the public’s quality of life.

We must think globally and locally, and we must take action at every level. We cannot afford to be complacent with either the State Department or the state capitals. We must leave neither the Congress nor the state legislatures to those more concerned with the perpetuation and proliferation of their wealth than the living conditions of everyday people. It matters who represents us on the city council of our hometown, and it matters who becomes the members of our local boards of education. While it is difficult to become informed voters, we should honor our moral imperative to do what we can to inform ourselves of our society at all its levels — including localities, counties and states. 

We should heed how pertinent to progress the federalist system of the United States continues to be. There is no reason why California cannot become a social democracy tomorrow. But such a struggle will require the concerted efforts of millions. 

As we at Stanford ponder our future internships and careers, we should consider all venues for public service, including local and regional government. Choosing to serve the public through local and regional government is not tantamount to lowering our ambitions. We must think both globally and locally and take action everywhere. Two Stanford alumni who exemplify this truth are California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez ’93 and Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs ’12, both of whom have enacted bold, society-advancing policies through their service at the provincial and municipal level, respectively. 

If we emphasize the long-term improvement of our society and honor the value of consensus, if we think further into the future than the next election and become involved at all levels of government, including when there is less so-called glory, then we may very well accomplish societal advancements so many people deem unlikely today.

On January 27, 2020, the Stanford Daily published an article by me and Adrian Liu. The article, titled The Climate Crisis and the Limitations of the Courts, is available in full below:

A three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit recently dismissed a case in which 21 young people asked the courts to demand federal government action on global warming. The panel did not deny the importance and urgency of taking measures to curb global warming, but rather concluded, with reluctance, that the claims were not redressable by the courts. 

“It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses,” wrote Josephine Staton, the dissenting judge. “Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation.” The courts, she implied, would not throw up their hands in the asteroid situation—why, then, should the climate crisis be different? Given the urgency of the climate crisis, Staton’s analogy suggested, the majority’s argument that it is not our place to do something loses force.

The two judges in the majority were sympathetic to the young plaintiffs. They found that climate change was a crisis demanding immediate action and that the plaintiffs had demonstrated concrete injuries from climate change, injuries that arguably violated constitutional rights. They found that numerous federal policies, including actively encouraging and incentivizing industry use of fossil fuels, were substantial factors in the young people’s demonstrated injuries. They found that the young litigants had successfully demonstrated being harmed—and being at risk of risk of further harm—by human-caused climate change made worse by such governmental policies.

But the majority halted the case on the grounds that the policy decisions required to redress the harms of the young people were too complex and involved for the courts, and that it was properly the domain of the other branches to address such issues. On such grounds, they shifted the decision to the executive and legislative branches: the very branches responsible for the harmful policies in question. 

Certainly the courts cannot solve the climate crisis by fiat, but neither was this the request. And complexity, as the dissenting judge observed, does not disqualify the courts from hearing cases otherwise suitable for judicial consideration.Brown v. Board,for example, ordered the racial desegregation of every U.S. public school, not balking at the fact that the particularities of doing so would be massively complicated. Though the court system cannot solve climate change by itself, a judgement finding that the government is engaging in unconstitutional behavior and ordering it into compliance could still be significant. Even limited moves such as ordering that the government cease to encourage the use of fossil fuels would constitute an important forward step. 

The more central issues in the case, however, concern the magnitude of the harms and the urgency with which the harms would have to be redressed. Neither issue involves factual controversies: all three judges fully accepted the scientific consensus that great and irreparable harm will be wrought upon animals and their habitats—including humans and their cities and settlements—in the next 30 years. Nor did they deny that we are quickly approaching a point of no return, after which environmental degradation will be so severe that the worst effects of the climate crisis will be somewhere between very difficult and impossible to overcome.  

An essential question of the case is when the court should, in the face of inaction by the other two branches, take matters into its own hands. Absent exceeding urgency, it may seem imperative for the courts to step back and urge the young litigants to call their members of Congress and perhaps even support alternative candidates in future election cycles, even if this means that the correction of wrongs may take a regrettably long period of time (91 years, for example, the timespan between the Emancipation Proclamation and the decision in Brown v. Board, as the dissenting judge noted). The two-judge majority echoed this reasoning, writing that “the plaintiffs’ case must be made to the political branches or to the electorate at large, the latter of which can change the composition of the political branches through the ballot box,” thereby declining to provide a judicial redress regarding the climate crisis for the young litigants, who will endure the effects of climate change more so than the more aged jurists on the bench.  

Given the hostility the current administration and Congress have displayed toward matters of climate change, the suggestion that voters implore their legislators to take reparative steps regarding climate change is not reassuring. Many of the young plaintiffs will not even be able to vote in the next several national elections, so some of them would have to wait at least another two administrations to be able to address their demands for action to the legislative and executive branches. Besides, an essential aspect of the case is that the political branches have failed to act, thereby necessitating judicial intervention.

If the climate crisis were less urgent, the young litigants might have the time to wait for the political process to correct its own wrongs. But by 2028 human civilization will have passed the point of no return for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And since climate change works on timescales that exceed two-year election cycles, action is needed now (or better yet, yesterday), not later. 

Herein lies an important distinction between this case and Brown v. Board. The 91 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown were exemplative not of laudable judicial restraint but of the momentum of oppression. The injustice, however, could still be rectified 91 years later. School integration came late, but not never. We are not in a situation today to wait 91 years. Here more than ever, justice delayed may truly be justice irrevocably denied. 

The fact that the litigants are not adults, and thus not voters, motivates another line of argument not included in the court’s opinion or the dissent: an important function of the courts is to address the concerns of persons whose interests are not prioritized by the politicians of the day. While elected officials are not motivated to concern themselves with the worries of non-enfranchised persons, judges are uniquely positioned to ensure the rights of non-voters are observed, including the right to a livable habitat that is implicit in the fundamental right to life invoked in both the Declaration of Independence and the Fifth Amendment. 

The argument that the courts cannot intervene in a normally political question even though the entire climate is at stake does not hold water to the rising sea levels, polluted air, decreased biodiversity, deadlier and more frequent natural disasters and other consequences of human-caused climate change. However slow-moving the climate crisis may seem on a day-to-day basis, its urgency means it would be a dereliction of judicial duty for the courts to stay silent.

Whether or not the young litigants will age in a livable habitat is not merely a political question but also a question of fundamental rights. Politics regards groups of people deciding together what to do and how to live. Courts abrogate their responsibility when they pretend their work does not implicate political affairs. The urgency of the climate crisis, coupled with the inaction of the political branches, justifies judicial intervention. As Judge Staton concluded her dissent: “determining when a court must step in to protect fundamental rights is not an exact science. In this case, my colleagues say the time is ‘never’; I say it is now.” We concur with her judgement.

This article was written by Adrian Liu and me (Noah Sveiven). It was published in the Stanford Daily on January 27, 2020. To access the article on the Stanford Daily website, click here.

Earlier this morning, at 08:00, I appeared on Café con Leche, an Antelope Valley radio program that exists to inform members of the Hispanic community of current events. Lilia Galindo, the host of the program, spoke with me about my experiences as the Student Member of the Antelope Valley Union High School District Board of Trustees, the growing recall effort against three of my colleagues, my plans for the near future, and my special friendship with Dana LaMon.

We are the deeds we do.

email: nsveiven 'at' stanford.edu

© 2020 by Noah Sveiven

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