Climate lawsuit against Montana wins decision

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Judge rules Montana's environmental policy act unconstitutional

A Montana judge today ruled that the Montana Environmental Policy Act is constitutional and does not protect Montanans' rights to a clean and healthy environment.

District Judge Kathy Seeley's opinion and order are the result of Held v. Montana, a lawsuit from 16 Montana youth alleging that they are being deprived of their right to clean and healthy environment because of fossil-fuel driven climate change.

“It is incredibly gratifying to see a Montana court recognize the effects the state’s harmful energy policies have on young people and all Montanans,”  Barbara Chillcott, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said. “Judge Seeley’s ruling underscores the reality that Montana’s government is actively working to undermine our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment."

This decision sets important precedent for other constitutional climate cases in the United States, Chilcott said, and "gives these youth plaintiffs some hope for a better future.”

This June, the plaintiffs in the case – 16 young Montanans — sat in Seeley’s courtroom in Montana’s First Judicial District Court for the first-ever constitutional climate trial in the United States. After three years of waiting, the Montana youth finally had the chance to explain how Montana’s government is violating their constitutional rights, including their fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment.

Today Seeley ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, writing, “The Montana Environmental Policy Act Limitation is unconstitutionally contributing to the depletion and degradation of Montana’s environment and natural resources and contributing to Plaintiffs’ injuries. The MEPA Limitation deprives Plaintiffs of their constitutionally guaranteed rights."

Seely wrote: "In terms of per capita emissions, Montana's consumption of fossil fuels is disproportionately large and only five states have greater per capita emissions. Montana is a major emitter of [greenhouse gas] emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically." 

She continued: "The current barriers to implementing renewable energy systems are not technical or economic, but social and political. Such barriers primarily result from government policies that slow down and inhibit the transition to renewables, and laws that allow utilization of fossil fuel development and preclude a faster transition to a clean, renewable energy system."

Western Environmental Law Center Senior Attorneys Barbara Chillcott and Melissa Hornbein, along with Roger Sullivan of McGarvey Law in Kalispell, worked as local counsel on this case developed by Our Children’s Trust.

Judge Seeley’s ruling sets precedent in the nascent field of U.S. constitutional climate cases. A similar case brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the U.S. government in 2015, Juliana v. United States, is on the precipice of proceeding to trial after eight years of legal challenges. In Hawai’i, where catastrophic, climate-fueled wildfires have claimed at least 96 lives in recent days, the youth plaintiffs in Navahine F. v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportationare heading to trial next summer. 

Here is a link to a searchable version of the order.



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