Climate Lawsuit Set to Return to Court on Appeal

In July, the Montana Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over a district judge's ruling on Held v. Montana, the 2023 youth-led constitutional climate lawsuit

By Micah Drew
Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023 for the first day of hearings in the trial. Thom Bridge | Independent Record

More than a year after wrapping up a first-of-its-kind constitutional climate lawsuit in Lewis and Clark District Court, lawyers for 16 youth plaintiffs are preparing to return to the courtroom for the next phase of ongoing litigation over the state’s guarantee of a “clean and healthful environment.” The Montana Supreme Court on Monday scheduled oral arguments in the appeal of Held v. Montana for July 10 in Helena.

Held v. Montana challenged several state laws alleging they violated a provision in the Montana Constitution that guarantees the right to a clean and healthful environment. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs in a 103-page ruling last August that struck down a provision of the Montana Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) and acknowledged links between the state’s fossil fuel industry and the impacts of climate change described by the youth plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the state of Montana subsequently appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, with a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office calling the ruling “absurd” and the trial a “tax-payer funded publicity stunt.”

The state’s Feb. 12 opening brief argues that the plaintiffs did not prove that declaring the MEPA provision unconstitutional would address their mental and physical injuries, because MEPA is not a permitting statute and actions taken by agencies in Montana cannot be directly tied to global climate change.  

“Plaintiffs’ alleged mental health and physical injuries from climate change will not be redressed by declaring a MEPA provision unconstitutional, because no fossil fuel or greenhouse gas related project is permitted by MEPA, and Plaintiffs’ claims did not include a challenge to any substantive permitting statute. The statute challenged by Plaintiffs is a prohibition on state action; striking it down removes the prohibition but does not supply authority,” according to the brief.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed their opening brief in March, reiterating much of the evidence presented during trial. In addition, dozens of individuals, businesses, special interest groups and government entities have filed amicus briefs on both sides of the lawsuit.

Nate Bellinger, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust representing the youth plaintiffs, said in a press release that he feels confident that the same evidence-based arguments that won the case in district court will hold up in the state’s highest judicial body.

“Last summer, in an historic decision, Judge Seeley found wholly in their favor, enshrining into law science-based protections for children’s most fundamental rights, and making Held the world’s first, winning, youth-led constitutional climate lawsuit,” Bellinger said. “We are grateful to have the opportunity for the 16 Held plaintiffs to present their case to the Montana Supreme Court and remain confident in our legal arguments and  in the compelling evidentiary record the Court will review. We are optimistic that together, we can secure the just outcome that these incredible young leaders, and generations to come, deserve.”

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