Montana Supreme Court Rejects Attempt to Dismiss Climate Lawsuit

The Montana Supreme Court denied a petition by Attorney General Austin Knudsen to stop Held v. Montana, set to begin trial next week

By Micah Drew
Map showing location of plaintiffs in Held v. Montana with Helena, site of the upcoming trial, indicated.

The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a request by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen to dismiss the constitutional climate change lawsuit, Held v. Montana, a week before the trial is due to start in Helena. The court cited a lack of evidence that new laws fundamentally changed the lawsuit’s complaints and stated no desire to alter the current trial schedule.

We are not inclined to disturb the District Court’s schedule at this juncture.

Montana Supreme Court

The lawsuit, filed in 2020, was brought by 16 youth plaintiffs who allege that Montana, through its executive agencies, has knowingly approved projects and implemented policies that support a fossil-fuel based energy system that adds dangerous levels of greenhouse gas pollution to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, damaging Montana’s environment and harming the state’s youth.

Knudsen’s last-minute petition, called a writ of supervisory control, was filed on Monday, asking the state’s highest court to prevent the lawsuit from going to trial. The ask came 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.”

However, the state Supreme Court denied to take up the issue, writing that the state had not demonstrated how the amended language altered the plaintiffs’ complaint.

“Since the Complaint was filed, the theory of this claim has been that prohibiting consideration of the impacts of climate change in environmental review violates the Montana Constitution,” according to the court filing. “The State has provided no reason why the District Court’s ruling cannot be reviewed on appeal, if necessary … Moreover, trial, with preparation literally years in the making, is set to commence less than a week from now; we are not inclined to disturb the District Court’s schedule at this juncture.”

The lone dissent came from Justice Jim Rice, who would order a response and postpone trial, according to the order.

Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley will preside over the bench trial in Helena.

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