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Judge dismisses lawsuit, but Valholly Frank says climate change message must continue to be heard

Valholly Frank, center, participates in an environrmental strike rally Oct. 19, 2019, in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Frank is part of a landmark lawsuit against the state of Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The suit was dismissed by a circuit judge on June 1. (Kevin Johnson photo)

Complimentary words weren’t exactly what a group of young plaintiffs – including Seminole Tribe high school student Valholly Frank – wanted to hear from a judge in Leon County on June 1. They were more interested in succeeding to take the state of Florida to trial over what they say are violations to their Constitutional rights, but their environmental lawsuit – known as Delaney Reynolds vs. The State of Florida – was dismissed on Zoom by Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll, who still praised the plaintiffs and their efforts.

“I think that it is tremendous that they’re engaged at this point in their lives,” Carroll said in his ruling. “I’d like to tell you that I was that civic-minded when I was their age, and that just would not be true.·But I hope you will tell your clients that this is one step in our civic process here, that you’ll take it to the First District, and they’ll let me know if I’m right or not.· And if we are wrong, then some judge here in the Second Circuit will correct that and address your concerns down the road.”

The plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit that the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness due to its actions, including, according to the plaintiffs, “creating and perpetuating an energy system based on fossil fuels.”
Frank, 17, said she believes something was holding back the judge from advancing the case, but she’s not sure what.

“It sounded like he wanted to keep our case going and move it along, but he dismissed it instead…,” Frank said.

In his ruling, Carroll said, “…it is awful tempting to deny the Motions to Dismiss and go ahead.· But I think that the fact is, is that really, at the end of the day, no matter how you dress it up, these are issues that the Court is being asked to solve that are beyond its authority to solve.”

The lawsuit will likely be appealed after the judge issues reasons why he dismissed the case.

“We’ll review that decision and then it’s most likely we will appeal to the district court of appeals,” said Andrea Rodgers, senior attorney for Our Children’s Trust and part of the legal representation for the plaintiffs. “The judge encouraged us to do that. He recognized that the higher court has some additional staff and resources. We should be able to give some good thought to the issue that we raised. So we’re confident that we will get a ruling on appeal that will allow these kids to present their case and get a trial.”

The eight kids from various backgrounds and different parts of the state filed the lawsuit in 2018 when Rick Scott was the governor.

“These kids all have issues that are dear to them,” Rodgers said. “Whether it’s Delaney who is fighting to protect her home in the Keys. Valholly fighting to protect her cultural connection to the Everglades and the places she holds dear. Or Levi [Draheim] on the East coast or Issac [Augspurg], who farms and raises his own animals [and] the high temperatures are preventing him from doing that.”

Frank, the daughter of Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank and Rhonda Roff, said being part of the lawsuit has helped her forge ahead in many ways. The Sagemont School senior used to think her opinions or voice didn’t matter, but that has changed. She speaks with plenty of confidence and poise, be it in one-on-one interviews, marching in streets or speaking in front of large audiences.

“I wouldn’t say it’s given me a voice; rather it’s given me a microphone. It’s given me great opportunities to speak out and it was the main reason I started speaking,” she said, adding “I try my best to make people realize that their voice does matter and they need to speak out when and if they can.”

The fragile health of the Everglades and its impact on the Seminole Tribe has been one of Frank’s major issues. She has shared her concerns about climate change at rallies, with others in the Tribe and elsewhere in Indian Country. Frank said connecting with other Native Americans who have their own sets of environmental issues has been one of the benefits brought by being part of the lawsuit.

“I love keeping in touch with those people and other tribes because it’s really amazing to hear from people who are also disproportionately affected by climate change,” she said.

Regardless of what path the lawsuit takes, Frank said she doesn’t want people to forget the fight she and the other plaintiffs waged.

“I hope people just realize why we did this. I hope people realize that the government isn’t necessarily working for them,” she said.