Wed. Oct 4th, 2023

A judge in Montana has ruled in favor of a coalition of young people who claimed the state had violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. 

The case, Held vs. Montana, was brought by 16 youths from all over Montana, whose ages range from five to 22. They alleged that they’d been significantly harmed by a provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act that curbed considerations of climate change when state officials made decisions on energy projects. The new ruling, handed down by Judge Kathy Seeley on Monday, Aug. 14, ruled that provision violated the state constitution.

Melissa Hornbein, an attorney for the plaintiffs, celebrated Seeley’s “carefully considered and comprehensive order,” in a statement shared with Rolling Stone. She said the ruling “recognizes and makes explicit that these youth plaintiffs are already suffering disproportionately from the climate crisis, that the state has known about the dangers for decades, yet proceeded with a litany of actions that worsened their suffering, and that the challenged laws preventing the state from considering the climate impacts of its actions both exacerbate the climate crisis and prevent the state from taking meaningful and technologically feasible action to address it.”

She added: “Most important, her ruling that these laws blatantly violate the youth plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and that the state has the ability to prevent such violations in the future is unsurprising but absolutely critical for the vindication of their rights going forward. We’re very happy with the order.”

A rep for the Montana Attorney General’s office did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s request for comment. Per The Washington Post, the state is expected to appeal the decision. 

The ruling is not only a major victory for activists trying to address climate change through the courts (an already difficult task), but specifically efforts driven by youths who stand to bear the brunt of the crisis. Such efforts had previously fallen short, like a case in Utah that was dismissed, and a federal suit that was delayed for years before a federal appeals court “reluctantly” threw it out in 2020, saying climate change was not an issue for the courts.

But as Rolling Stone reported earlier this year, activists saw a greater possibility for success in Montana thanks to language in the state’s constitution (adopted in 1972) that aimed to endure “a clean and healthful environment… for present and future generations.” (Only two other state constitutions contain similar language, Pennsylvania and New York.)

That language, however, did not prevent the state from embracing a litany of energy projects, especially the construction of two coal-fired power plants in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, as concerns about climate change grew, the fossil fuel industry successfully lobbied the state legislature to adopt rules that not only promoted fossil fuels to the state’s energy policy, but prohibited permit reviews from considering the effects of climate change. It was those provisions that the youth-led lawsuit targeted, with the plaintiffs laying out the ways climate change had impacted their physical and mental health. 

While the suit was originally brought in 2020, it finally went to trial this past June. Most of the plaintiffs — save the youngest — testified over the course of the five-day trial. The state, meanwhile, rested its case after just a day. While many had expected the state to specifically argue against the climate science underpinning the youths’ suit, they instead argued the state legislature should handle the issue, not the courts.


During closing arguments, the assistant attorney general derided the trial as a “week-long airing of political grievances that properly belong in the Legislature, not a court of law.” As Rolling Stone noted, the plaintiffs and lawsuit faced similar political attacks in the lead-up to the case. State representatives even suggested the youths were being exploited by out-of-state special interests, and that they were exaggerating their anxieties about climate change.

“It really bothers me to have this pushback from the state when we’re fighting to protect the Attorney General’s children and grandchildren, their land and their home,” one of the plaintiffs, Grace Gibson-Snyder, said. “And the blame — they’re such straw man arguments. It’s not Missoula running this case [a reference to the largely liberal city]. It’s people from all across the state. That’s what gives it such power.”

#Youths #Win #Landmark #Case #Rolling #Stone

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