Montana Judge Hands Historic Win to Young Plaintiffs in Climate Change Case

Held v. Montana Decision: Montana is violating the rights of young people with policies that prohibit the state from considering climate change effects when it reviews coal mining, natural gas extraction and other fossil fuel projects

The 103-page decision by Judge Kathy Seeley in the Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena marked a major victory in the first youth-led climate case to reach trial in the U.S. and could influence similar cases nationwide.

16 plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2020, then between the ages of 2 and 18, claiming the state’s permitting of projects like coal and natural gas production contributed to climate impacts to Montana’s environment, harming the young plaintiffs. 

The case was brought against the state, the governor, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s public commission office, as well as other state departments. The plaintiffs’ claims have been confirmed, as Seeley states that the plaintiffs, now aged 5 to 22, have a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.” Seeley also held that policies that prohibit state agencies from considering climate and emissions impacts when approving fossil fuel projects are unconstitutional. 

Montana is one of only three states that have the affirmative right to a healthful environment in their constitutions. That legal language (see below) was a cornerstone of the Held v. Montana case, which had young people testify directly about climate impacts upending their lives, including lead plaintiff Rikki Held, 22, who testified that droughts have left “skinny cows and dead cattle” on her family’s ranch in eastern Montana and wildfires have made ash fall from the sky. Climate scientists, policy researchers, and a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention also testified on behalf of the youths. 

(1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations. (2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty. (3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources. 

Mont. Const. art. IX., § 1.

In the June 2023 trial, Plaintiffs argued that despite its sparse population, Montana is responsible for a large share of global emissions, through the major production of coal, oil, and gas, as well as pipelines and other infrastructures that are used to ship those fuels elsewhere. 

Expert witnesses presented scientific facts concluding that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth is warming as a direct result of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from burning fossil fuels. Judge Seeley’s decision cited those expert witness testimonies, as well as the evidence that Montana’s temperatures are expected to increase, and with that, increased impacts of climate change, such as heat waves, that have adverse impacts on young people’s mental health and quality of life.  

“Youth plaintiffs have experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the state’s failure to consider [greenhouse gas emissions] and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property; recreational, spiritual and aesthetic interests; tribal and cultural traditions, economic security and happiness”.

The state argued that climate policy should not be set by courts and the plaintiffs had not proved that the global crisis could be attributed to Montana’s relatively small emissions.

A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) called the ruling absurd, and said in a statement that the state will appeal the decision.

This “legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states,” according to spokesperson Emily Flower. “It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary.”

What This Means 

Judge Seeley issued declaratory relief, which will have an impact on Montana’s policies moving forward by “invalidating statutes prohibiting analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts.” 

“By prohibiting consideration of climate change, GHG emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution, the MEPA Limitation violates Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is facially unconstitutional,” the ruling said. 

Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, said Seeley’s findings, including that climate change is a serious health and environmental threat, could “become an inspiration” for lawsuits in states with similar constitutional provisions and make it more difficult for defendants to wave away climate concerns. “I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court.”

Lawsuits that use a safe climate as an affirmative human or constitutional right are abundant in courts worldwide, but success has been mixed for advocates filing these lawsuits in the US. That is slowly changing. In addition to this ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court recognized a human right to a stable climate in a March ruling against a biomass power plant developer. 

The clear, constitutional language established in this ruling may also boost the push for affirmative climate rights in more than 15 other states considering similar provisions in their own constitutions, according to Maya van Rossum, founder of the Green Amendment for the Generations national movement. “That’s really important, because it’ll help make sure that when these kinds of constitutional provisions are passed in other states, they’re even stronger when it comes to climate,” van Rossum said.

Youth-Led Climate Cases 

The case was just one of several youth-led climate cases, seeing young climate activists suing governments across the US over degradation of the climate through oil and gas development. Another of those cases is Juliana v. US, a landmark lawsuit against the federal government that was greenlighted to proceed to trial by an Oregon district judge in June after being dismissed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020. Another case filed by young people in Hawaii against the state’s Department of Transportation is scheduled to go to trial next year, making it the second in the country to do so.

Lawyers from legal nonprofit Our Children’s Trust spearhead the cases and lauded the “sweeping” Monday victory in Montana. “Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” Our Children’s Trust Chief Legal Counsel Julia Olson said in a statement. “In a sweeping win for our clients, the Honorable Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and enjoined their implementation.”