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Montana judge rules in favor of youth in landmark climate case

Lewis and Clark County Courthouse
Posted at 11:20 AM, Aug 14, 2023

HELENA — A Helena District Judge has ruled in favor of plaintiffs Our Children's Trust and a group of youth who challenged the state of Montana claiming the state had not upheld its constitutional obligation for a clean and healthful environment.

Judge Kathy Seeley issued the ruling in the landmark case Held v. Montana on Monday finding the plaintiffs have standing. The case was the first of its kind to make it to trial in the United States.

"The right to a clean and healthful environment is a fundamental right protected by [the Montana Constitution]," wrote Seeley in her ruling.

During the June trial, some of the 16 plaintiffs aged 5-22 took the stand and explained how climate change has impacted their lives.

Montana judge rules in favor of youth in landmark climate case

Montana attorneys argued at trial that Montana’s overall contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is minuscule compared to the rest of the world.

According to the ruling, Montana's greenhouse gas emissions have been proven to be fairly traceable to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) Limitation and the judgment will influence Montana's conduct by "invalidating statutes prohibiting analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts."

“It is incredibly gratifying to see a Montana court recognize the effects the state’s harmful energy policies have on young people and all Montanans,” said Barbara Chillcott, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. "...This decision sets important precedent for other constitutional climate cases in the U.S., and, most importantly, gives these youth plaintiffs some hope for a better future.”

The ruling means the 2023 version of the MEPA Limitation enacted by House Bill 971, as well the law created by Senate Bill 557 are unconstitutional and permanently enjoined.

"By enacting and enforcing the MEPA Limitation, the State is failing to meet their affirmative duty to protect Plaintiffs' right to a clean and healthful environment, and to protect Montana's natural resources from unreasonable depletion," wrote Seeley.

Judge Seeley is also allowing the plaintiffs to submit attorneys fees costs that would be paid for by the state. She will make her final ruling on costs after the defense has a chance to respond.

The Montana Department of Justice said in a statement they disagreed strongly with the ruling and will appeal.

“This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial. Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate — even the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses agreed that our state has no impact on the global climate. Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states..." stated Emily Flower, spokeswoman for Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

Read the full ruling:

Editor's note: This article initially said attorney's fees had been awarded to the plaintiffs. At this time no fees have been awarded and the judge is allowing parties to submit motions regarding attorney's fees.