Montana Attorney General Asks State Supreme Court to Dismiss Climate Case

One week from the start of the first-ever constitutional climate-change trial, the state of Montana filed a petition to have the case thrown out

By Micah Drew
An oil train travels near Marias Pass on Sept. 12, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Monday filed an emergency petition asking the state Supreme Court to vacate the trial date of a youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit slated to begin next week.

The petition, called a writ of supervisory control, comes on the heels of a separate legal motion to dismiss the landmark case on similar grounds — both cite a recent legislative revision to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which the state’s top legal official says topples a critical pillar upon which the climate case rests.

The end-of-session bill that targeted the case’s legal foundation is House Bill 971, which struck down a broad MEPA provision barring state agencies from reviewing “actual or potential impacts beyond Montana’s borders” and replaced it with a ban on evaluating any “greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate.” The bill was signed by Gov. Greg on May 10.

The lawsuit at the center of the legal wrangling was filed in 2020 on behalf of 16 youth plaintiffs who allege Montana’s fossil-fuel dominated energy economy violates their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The case, Held v. Montana, is scheduled for a two-week trial set to begin June 12 in Helena.

Knudsen argues that the new MEPA language renders the lawsuit’s merits moot, and that it shouldn’t be allowed to proceed based on a law that no longer exists. The petition also states that, if the plaintiffs are allowed to amend their complaint to include the MEPA revision, the trial should be delayed to allow for further discovery.

During a pretrial oral argument on May 12, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley told attorneys for both sides that she did not consider the changes to MEPA to be “nearly as substantive” as the state.

“It seems to me the preparation you have all done would be applicable to this statute as amended,” she said, reaffirming her intent to go to trial. “I’m not intending to stop everything to spend months wrapped around that spoke.”

In Knudsen’s petition, he also states that, because MEPA is not a regulatory statute, declaring any portion of it as unconstitutional will have no impact on the state’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and the court is unable to offer the plaintiffs any relief.

Knudsen was previously successful in having a portion of the Held lawsuit dismissed based on the state’s energy policy, which the Legislature repealed earlier this year.

“Following the legislative session, there are no existing laws or policies for the district court to rule on. A show trial on laws that do not exist, as the district court seems intent on holding, would be a colossal waste of taxpayer resources,” Emily Flower, spokesperson for Knudsen, said in a statement to the Beacon. “This same lawsuit has been thrown out of federal court and courts in a dozen other states – and it should be dismissed here in Montana as well.”

Just last week, a federal judge ruled that Juliana v. United States, a case brought by Oregon-based youth plaintiffs on similar legal grounds, can amend their complaint and go to trial. A previous trial was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court days before it was set to begin in 2018. A similar case brought against Hawaii’s Department of Transportation has also been allowed to proceed to trial later this year.

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