Sagoonick v. Alaska (on appeal from Sinnok v. Alaska)

Country:United States
Defendant:State of Alaska
Law Applied:Constitutional LawDomestic Environmental Law
Key words: Human RightsClimate JusticeJust TransitionPublic Trust
Loss and Damage

Case Information:

Court(s): Alaskan Supreme Court; Alaskan Superior Court

Dissenting Judgement: Majority Decision (split 3:2)

Filing Date: 2017

Last Update: 28 January 2022

Status: Dismissal affirmed


The claim is an appeal against the decision of the Alaskan Superior Court, which granted a motion to dismiss against the Plaintiffs in their claim that the State of Alaska had violated their rights under the Alaskan constitution.


In August 2017, 16 young Alaskans petitioned the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (‘DEC’) to adopt an agency rule to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions would have a ‘reduction trajectory … based on best climate science.’[1] The proposed rule called for the DEC to regulate stationary and mobile sources of emissions and the extraction of fossil fuels in Alaska to reduce carbon emissions to at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050; this figure is an estimation of the global reduction necessary to slow climate change and carbon emission levels to a specified level by 2100.[2] In addition, the proposed rule required the DEC to:1) publish an annual accounting of the State’s progress in addressing carbon emissions; and 2) to adopt a Climate Action Plan to meet the reduction requirements specified.[3] The DEC responded in September 2017 by denying the petition, yet assuring the petitioners that climate change was a State priority.[4]

The following month the Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the State of Alaska, its governor, and State agencies saying that the denial of the rule-making petition was a violation of their constitutional rights. The Plaintiffs further alleged that the Defendants’ implementation of a Climate and Energy Policy—that allowed for and facilitated the production of greenhouse gases—failed to implement standards for climate mitigation.[5] The Plaintiffs also alleged a violation of Alaska’s Public Trust Doctrine.[6]

The Plaintiffs asked for declaratory relief and an injunction preventing the Defendants from further executing their Climate and Energy Policy. They also requested orders requiring the Defendants to:1) complete an accounting of the State’s greenhouse gas emissions; and 2) develop a climate recovery plan to achieve emissions reductions consistent with those necessary to stabilise the climate system.[7] 

The Alaskan Superior Court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the claims for injunctive relief could not be distinguished from an earlier case involving two of the same Plaintiffs: Kanuk, et al. v. Alaska.[8] Here, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the claims were non-justiciable political questions because they required science- and policy-based inquiry, and that the declaratory relief sought would not advance the Plaintiffs’ interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.[9]The Plaintiffs (henceforth the ‘Appellants’) filed an appeal in the Alaskan Supreme Court, of dismissal of a climate case based on the state constitution. They argued that their claims of violations of multiple previously recognised constitutional rights had been misconstrued as a single constitutional claim to an ‘unenumerated substantive due process right to a stable climate system’ by the Alaska Superior Court.[10] They also argued that the Court had failed to address these other claims.[11]


The Plaintiffs’ Arguments:

  1. The Superior Court erred by determining that the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims presented a non-justiciable political question.[12]
    Alaska’s courts had a constitutional duty to assess the actions and policies of the political branches for compliance with Alaska’s constitutional protection of fundamental rights. Federal precedent established that cases premised upon harms stemming from climate change did not implicate non-justiciable political questions. As such, it was the judiciary’s duty to assess affirmative government actions and policies for compliance with Alaska’s constitutional protection of fundamental rights.[13]
  2. The Superior Court erred firstly, by determining that the Defendants’ denial of the Plaintiffs’ petition was not arbitrary; and secondly, by not addressing whether it violated the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.[14]
    The Plaintiffs had taken heed of the Court’s statements in Kanuk, that the rate at which Alaska must reduce GHG emissions was not for judicial determination ‘in the first instance.’[15] In the petition, the Plaintiffs had set forth clear legal authority demonstrating the constitutional duties of the DEC, alongside evidence from hundreds of credible, peer-reviewed scientific sources demanding the need for the proposed regulation.[16] The Plaintiffs explained that by its systematic affirmative actions in causing dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the State is violating the Plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights.[17]

The Defendant’s Arguments:

  1. The Superior Court did not err by determining that the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims presented a non-justiciable political question.
    The Supreme Court applied the analytical framework expounded in Kanuk, examining:
    1. Whether deciding the claim would require the court to answer questions better directed to the legislative or executive branches of government (the political question doctrine); and 
    2. Whether there are other reasons—such as ripeness, mootness, or standing—that may persuade the court to believe that although the case is one they are institutionally capable of deciding, prudence advises that they should not do so (prudential non-justiciability).[18] 

The Court said that the injunctive relief claims presented non-justiciable political questions as per the political question doctrine. They also argued that although the declaratory relief claims did not necessarily present non-justiciable questions, the Superior Court had properly dismissed them on prudential grounds after correctly determining that it could not grant injunctive relief as no ‘actual controversy’ that was ‘appropriate for judicial determination’ had been presented.[19] They noted and reaffirmed the Court’s analysis in Kanuk that declaratory relief would lead to the parties’ legal relations remaining unsettled.[20]

  1. The Superior Court did not err firstly, by determining that Defendants’ denial of the Plaintiffs’ petition was not arbitrary; and secondly, by not addressing whether it violated the Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.[21] 


Unanimous/majority decision: majority decision, appeal rejected (split 3:2).
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Superior Court, confirming that the decision to deny the petition had a reasonable basis in law.[22]

Dissenting arguments (Justice Maassen, joined by Justice Carney)

  1. Declaratory relief does serve a useful purpose.[23]
    The majority decision was consistent with Kanuk, but Justice Maassen was ‘no longer convinced that nothing can be gained by clarifying Alaskans’ constitutional rights and the State’s corresponding duties in the context of climate change.’[24]
  2. The Public Trust doctrine in the Alaska Constitution provides the right to a liveable climate.[25]

By Joe Uprichard

Please find the full judgement here.Last edited on 02 September 2022; with thanks to the case editor, Bjorn Lambrenos.

[1] Sagoonick, et al. v. State of Alaska, et al., No. S-17297 (Alaska Jan. 28, 2022), Supreme Court of Alaska (hereafter ‘Sagoonick Superior Court Judgement’), pp.18-19.
[2] Ibid., p.19.
[3] Ibid., p.19.
[4] Ibid., pp.19-20.
[5] Ibid., p. 20.
[6] Ibid., p. 23.
[7] Ibid., p.23.
[8] Kanuk-Kanuk ex rel. Kanuk v. State, Dep’t of Nat. Res., 335 P.3d 1088 (Alaska 2014), (hereafter ‘Kanuk v State Department’) available here.
[9] Sagoonick Superior Court Judgement, pp. 23-24 and Sinnok, et al. v. State of Alaska, et al. No. 3AN-17-09910 CI, Alaska 3rd Dist. Ct. October. 30. 2018 (Order Granting State’s Motion to Dismiss; Alaska Superior Court), p. 14.
[10] Sinnok, et al. v. State of Alaska, et al. No. 3AN-17-09910 CI, Supreme Ct. No. S-17297 (Appellants’ Statement on Points of Appeal) pp. 2-4.
[11] Sinnok, et al. v. State of Alaska, et al. No. 3AN-17-09910 CI, Supreme Ct. No. S-17297 (Appellants’ Statement on Points of Appeal) pp. 2-4
[12] Sinnok, et al. v. State of Alaska, et al. No. 3AN-17-09910 CI, Supreme Ct. No. S-17297 (Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District at Anchorage) January. 28. 2022  (hereafter ‘Sagoonick Supreme Court Judgement), pp. 16-31.
[13] Ibid., p. 16 and 25.
[14] Ibid., pp. 36-43.
[15] Kanuk v State Department, para. 1098 and Sagoonick Supreme Court Judgement, p. 36.
[16] Ibid., pp. 36-37.
[17] Ibid., p. 37.
[18] Kanuk v State Department, para. 1096 and Sagoonick Supreme Court Judgement, pp. 26-27
[19] Ibid., pp. 27-42.
[20] Ibid., pp. 43-45.
[21] Ibid., pp. 49-54.
[22] Ibid., p. 54.
[23] Ibid., p. 55.
[24] Ibid., p. 59.
[25] Ibid., pp. 60-68.
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