Jurisdiction to Prevent the End of the World

Which court has jurisdiction to prevent the end of the world? Any, one would think: after all, the end of the world is likely to have serious consequences pretty much everywhere.

Is that why an American retired radiation safety officer and a Spanish science writer decided to initiate proceedings in Hawaï to stop the running of the new Large Hadron Collider, a giant particle accelerator operating on the Swiss-French border near Geneva? The plaintiffs fear that the Collider might create a black hole which would spell the end of the Earth. No doubt, that would have an impact even in Hawaï.

The defendants were the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). In an interview to the New York Times, one of the plaintiffs revealed that his strategy focused on American parties. He did not know whether CERN  would show up, but he had added it as a party to save expenses. In any case, part of the project was funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and the magnets of the Collider are supplied and maintained by Fermilab. 

The complaint argued that the defendants had failed to comply with American legislation, namely the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and also with the European precautionary principle.

As the New York Times reported, on September 26, 2008, the Hawaï District Court declined jurisdiction.

The order of the Court, which can be found here, is disappointing from a conflict’s perspective. This is because Judge Gillmor was able to dismiss the action solely on domestic grounds. In other words, she held that the court lacked jurisdiction within the American legal system, as a federal court, which is not to say that an American state court would have lacked jurisdiction. 

American federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. This means that this is for plaintiffs to demonstrate that the court has subject matter jurisdiction. Here, the plaintiffs solely argued that the court had federal question jurisdiction, i.e. that this was an action “arising under” U.S. federal law. The federal law that they put forward was NEPA. However, NEPA requires that there be a “major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” (42 USC §4332 (c)). The court finds that there was no such major federal action in that case. As a consequence, it rules that there is no federal question, and that it lacks jurisdiction on this ground as a U.S. federal court.

The court further rules that no other ground for subject matter jurisdiction were put forward by the plaintiffs and that they had the burden of doing so. Thus, there might have been other grounds to found the subject matter jurisdiction of the court. For instance, neither federal party jurisdiction, nor diversity jurisdiction are discussed. 

Finally, the court rules that it does not need to address the issue of whether the plaintiffs had standing, given that their allegation of an injury was arguably “conjectural and hypothetical”. 

Meanwhile, a suit was also filed before the European Court of Human Rights (see the report of the Telegraph here). I don’t know whether this action is more likely to be successful, but Strasbourg is certainly closer to Geneva than Honolulu.