Attorneys in the youth-led constitutional climate change lawsuit Held v. Montana on Monday delivered opening statements in a crowded Helena courtroom where the landmark environmental trial is set to unfold over the next two weeks.
Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Kathy Seeley is presiding over a bench trial in the high-profile lawsuit brought by 16 youth plaintiffs from across Montana who say the state has violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The trial is focused on a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that prohibits state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts while conducting environmental reviews. The lawsuit is the first youth-led lawsuit focused on climate change impacts to reach trial.
Despite recent efforts by the defense to dismiss the case, including an 11th-hour appeal last week to the state Supreme Court, the Held trial opened this morning with a courtroom filled with the plaintiffs and their families, as well as members of the public and dozens of reporters in attendance.
In opening statements, attorneys from both sides established the legal framework for a case that will rest heavily on expert witness testimony as well as that of the youth plaintiffs. For the plaintiffs, Roger Sullivan gave an overview of the case and introduced the environmental experts who will testify, while also describing the harm he alleges plaintiffs have suffered due to the state’s unwillingness to mitigate Montana’s contributions to climate change. By contrast, Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell succinctly stated that the trial is merely a legal question about a law that no longer exists — a reference to provisions of the state’s energy policy promoting the use of fossil fuels, but which the state Legislature repealed in April.
“This case as it currently exists is far more boring than the plaintiffs would make it out to be,” Russell told the court. “It’s simply a challenge to a discreet provision to a purely procedural statute.”
Following opening statements, the court heard from two witnesses — Mae Nan Ellingson, a delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention responsible for including the provision guaranteeing a citizen’s right to a clean and healthful environment, and the lead plaintiff Rikki Held.
Ellingson was the youngest delegate to the 1972 convention that rewrote Montana’s constitution. She was the coauthor of the document’s preamble, as well as one of the strongest advocates of articulating a right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
In her testimony, Ellingson described being amazed by the beauty of Montana’s Glacier National Park on her honeymoon, and how it prompted her to move to Missoula to attend the University of Montana in the1960s.
Back then, Ellingson said the air quality in town was so bad that she couldn’t see Mount Sentinel, the iconic prominence that looms over the campus. She began phoning in reports to the local radio station and joined the group Gals Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), signaling her entrée to environmental activism.
Those early experiences, she said, fomented Ellingson’s desire to enshrine environmental protections in the Constitution, which are reflected in the document’s preamble.
“I’m proud of this constitution, I’m particularly proud of the right to a clean and healthful environment and our veery strong bill of rights,” Ellingson told the court. “I support and encourage the young people of our state to be involved in our state.”
Many of the young plaintiffs are expected to offer testimony during the trial, including Held, who was the first to speak about the basis of her inclusion in this case.
Held grew up on a ranch near Broadus, Mont., and had early exposure to both scientific rigor and the impacts of climate change that ultimately led to her inclusion in this suit.
Before she entered high school, Held assisted in a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research project surveying cross sections of Montana’s Powder River, one of the longest undammed waterways in the West, which happens to pass through her family property. That research experience, along with learning about climate change in school, led Held to study environmental science at Colorado College, where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree just a few weeks ago.
Held also spoke about seeing the effects of climate change on her ranch including extreme drought, flood events and wildfires, and how the family’s business was affected.
During a particularly catastrophic wildfire season, Held said 70 miles of powerlines were destroyed and her family’s property was left without electricity for a month, which led to the death of several cattle.
“I remember … ash falling from the sky, people from town being evacuated,” she said, choking up on the stand. “It impacts the wellbeing of myself, my family, my community … I see the impacts, I know the science behind it. It’s stressful to see that.”
This afternoon the court will hear testimony from Dr. Steven Running, a climate science researcher.
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