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Climate change lawsuit set to go to oral arguments before Montana Supreme Court

The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments in an appeal of the youth’s constitutional climate lawsuit, Held v. Montana. The ruling by the state’s highest court, which affects the right to a “clean and healthful environment” enshrined in the Montana constitution, will likely shape the future of environmental regulation in the state.

In 2020, 16 youth plaintiffs filed suit alleging that the state, through several agencies, violated their rights by failing to consider climate change impacts when making permitting decisions, increasing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and impacting youth physically and emotionally.

In August, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in the nation’s first constitutional climate change trial, declaring that young Montana plaintiffs have “a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.” Her 103-page order struck down two laws passed by the state Legislature in 2023 that amended the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), prohibiting state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting environmental reviews. One prominent climate advocate praised the ruling as “the strongest climate change decision any court has ever issued.”

Montana attorneys appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court, with a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office calling the ruling “absurd” and the two-week trial a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.” The state argues that the plaintiffs failed to establish a direct link between MEPA and their injuries and that the court cannot offer a meaningful remedy to address their complaint.

“No single legal action in Montana can significantly reduce climate change and thereby repair Plaintiffs’ harm. It would require a fundamental transformation of the global energy system,” according to the preliminary summary of the state.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys filed their opening brief in March, reiterating much of the evidence presented at trial and arguing there was no evidence of a compelling state interest in ignoring greenhouse gas pollution. “Contrary to the State’s meritless contention, this case is not about the effects of climate change more broadly, but rather about how Montana’s environment and natural resources, and Montana’s children and youth, are harmed by Defendants’ actions that cause and contribute to climate harm in Montana,” the brief reads.

Many individuals, public officials, interest groups and vested interests have filed amicus curiae briefs on both sides of the case.

Amicus curiae briefs filed on behalf of the state included officials from the Montana Legislature, the Montana Chamber of Commerce and several municipal chambers of commerce, the Frontier Institute and several fossil fuel industry groups, NorthWestern Energy, the Treasure State Resources Association and a coalition of 14 states led by Republican governors.

In their filings, the groups argue that the district court exceeded its authority and encroached on the legislature’s role in policymaking, that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, and that climate change is a political issue that should not be decided by the judiciary.

Twenty groups filed legal briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs, including professional athletes, the outdoor recreation industry (including Patagonia and Orvis), 113 public health experts and physicians, former Montana Supreme Court justices, and six federally recognized Montana Native communities.

“While not generalizable across all of Montana’s diverse Native and Indigenous nations, one of the strongest common roots of culture and identity is a deep connection to the land, water, wildlife, and natural environment,” the tribal governments’ executive summary states. “These places are not viewed merely as natural resources or places for recreation, but rather play a central role in defining systems of learning, understanding, culture, and the very existence of Native people.”

Wednesday’s hearing followed three rulings in similar cases that could impact the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Seeley’s decision.

In court in May, attorneys for the state point to two recent federal rulings to bolster their case. One ruling, from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ordered a U.S. District Court to dismiss Juliana v. United States, a domestic lawsuit by youth similar to Held that argued the U.S. government violated the youth’s right to a “stable climate system,” finding that the plaintiffs had no standing under the Constitution. The second lawsuit, a case involving California minors suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was also dismissed by a federal judge in May.

Lead plaintiff Rikki Held testifies during a hearing in the climate change case, Held v. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Circuit Courthouse on June 12, 2023.

But plaintiffs’ lawyers filed their own notice last week about the consequences of a lawsuit led by Hawaii youth that was settled last month. The 13 youth plaintiffs in Navahine v. Hawaii Department of Transportation, which was set to go to trial this summer, focused on climate pollution caused by prioritizing highway development over other forms of transportation. The settlement agreement requires Hawaii to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from all modes of transportation by 2045, develop a statewide plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and complete alternative transportation networks within the next five years.

The letter from plaintiffs’ attorneys said the settlement “recognizes and formalizes the obligations of the State of Hawaii and the Hawaii Department of Transportation to exercise their statutory authorities in a manner consistent with and fulfilling their constitutional obligations by mandating the establishment of legally enforceable (greenhouse gas) emission reduction plans to decarbonize Hawaii’s transportation system.”

Nate Bellinger, senior attorney at Our Children’s Trust, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs, said in a news release that the purpose of the court system is to protect constitutional rights when they are violated by other branches of government, even though the state continues to argue that the District Court ruling constitutes an abuse of power.

“We are confident that once the Supreme Court reviews the extensive transcript from the hearing, including testimony from plaintiffs and experts, it will reach the same conclusion and uphold the District Court’s ruling,” Bellinger said.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office told the Beacon: “The District Court gave the plaintiffs a show trial last June, but now it’s time for the State Supreme Court to do its job and overturn the flawed decision that followed. As the state has said from the beginning, this case was a taxpayer-funded publicity stunt produced by Our Children’s Trust, a special interest group exploiting young Montanans to gain attention and raise money for their political activism. It should have been thrown out — as it has been in federal court and in courts in more than a dozen states — from the beginning. We look forward to arguing this case on Wednesday.”

The hearing will feature just 70 minutes of oral arguments by attorneys for each side — 40 minutes for the state and 30 minutes for the plaintiff. The hearing will be held in a courtroom at the Montana Supreme Court, starting at 9:30 a.m. A livestream of the proceedings will be available online. In Kalispell, Climate Smart Glacier Country is hosting a livestream event in Room 144 A/B of the Flathead Valley Community College Arts and Technology building.

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