A state judge ruled Monday that Montana’s oil and gas policies are infringing on young people’s constitutional rights to a safe environment, handing a big win to youth climate plaintiffs that will likely reverberate across the legal landscape.
An adjustment to the Montana Energy Policy Act (MEPA)—which limits environmental factors that must be considered for project permitting—violates rights to a safe environment enshrined in Montana’s constitution, according to Judge Kathy Seeley of the Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena, Mont.
“I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court,” according to Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Montana is one of only three states that have the affirmative right to a healthful environment in their constitutions. That legal language was a cornerstone of the Held v. Montana youth case, which had young people testify directly about climate impacts upending their lives.
“Putting a human face on this global problem worked well in this courtroom, and may well be followed elsewhere,” Gerrard said in an email.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R), who could file an appeal to the state’s supreme court, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Judge Seeley issued declaratory relief, which will have an impact on Montana’s policies moving forward by “invalidating statutes prohibiting analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts.”
“By prohibiting consideration of climate change, GHG emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution, the MEPA Limitation violates Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is facially unconstitutional,” the ruling said.
The 16 youth plaintiffs of Held v. Montana took the stand in June for their trial, which carried on for over a week at Lewis and Clark County District Court. Climate scientists, policy researchers, and a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention all testified on behalf of the youths.
The plaintiffs are part of a cadre of young climate activists suing governments across the US over degradation of the climate through oil and gas development.
Part of those cases is Juliana v. US, a landmark lawsuit against the federal government that was greenlighted to proceed to trial by an Oregon district judge in June.
Lawyers from legal nonprofit Our Children’s Trust spearhead the cases and lauded the “sweeping” Monday victory in Montana.
“Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” Our Children’s Trust Chief Legal Counsel Julia Olson said in a statement.
Court watchers say the case may influence other climate legal battles that feature rights-based claims, potentially paving the way for new lawsuits.
Lawsuits that use a safe climate as an affirmative human or constitutional right are ubiquitous in courts worldwide, but success has been mixed for advocates filing these lawsuits in the US.
That is slowly changing. In addition to this ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court recognized a human right to a stable climate in a March ruling against a biomass power plant developer.
The emphasis on climate science and its direct connection to the harms alleged is a notable sea change, according to Lewis & Clark Law School professor Lisa Benjamin. It’s also notable that the court identifies policies and the law as barriers to a clean energy transition, Benjamin added.
“Simply put, the court said these laws have to change,” Benjamin said in an email. “This case can serve as an important precedent for other states that have similar constitutional provisions.”
The clear, constitutional language established in this ruling may also boost the push for affirmative climate rights in more than 15 other states considering similar provisions in their own constitutions, according to Maya van Rossum, founder of the Green Amendment for the Generations national movement.
“That’s really important, because it’ll help make sure that when these kinds of constitutional provisions are passed in other states, they’re even stronger when it comes to climate,” van Rossum said.
The case is Held v. Montana, Mont. Dist. Ct., No. CDV-2020-307, Ruling 8/14/23
Photo: Youth plaintiffs arrive for the nation’s first youth climate change trial at Montana’s First Judicial District Court on June 12 in Helena, Montana. Sixteen plaintiffs, ranging in age from 6 to 22, are suing the state for promoting fossil fuel energy policies that they say violate their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment”. (Photo by William Campbell/Getty Images)
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