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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Constitutional climate trial ends, verdict could take 'months'

Montana Capitol.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio

The nation’s first youth-led constitutional climate trial ended Tuesday in Helena.

Sixteen young people are suing Montana state leaders for allegedly violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by promoting fossil fuel policies and contributing to climate change.

The youth plaintiffs, including 18-year-old Lander Busse from Kalispell, say they are living through longer fire seasons, smoke-filled summers and drying rivers and have requested the state set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

“It's been really difficult just to watch how dire of a situation this is, be put on full display,” Busse said. “And equally as frustrating as that, is knowing the place we're in as a state to be able to stop these problems.”

Attorney Nate Bellinger, who argued on behalf of the kids, said the state has taken recent action to make the situation worse by enacting a 2023 law that removes consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in the permitting of energy projects.

Attorney for the youth plaintiffs Nate Bellinger presents closing statements in a Helena courthouse Tuesday.
Ellis Juhlin
Attorney for the youth plaintiffs Nate Bellinger presents closing statements in a Helena courthouse Tuesday.

“Forcing Montana's agencies to turn a blind eye to climate change’s catastrophic impacts and the mounting greenhouse gas emissions driving these unnatural, wholly avoidable injuries,” Bellinger said.

After the plaintiffs spent a week making their arguments on the far reaching impacts of climate change and the state’s role in contributing to it, the state took one day and called on one expert witness. Lawyers for the state argued that climate change is a global issue and reducing emissions in Montana would not make a difference in the lives of the kids.

Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said the plaintiffs’ testimony moved away from legal principles and the case had been made into a popularity contest.

“What we heard in plaintiff's case is not constitutional controversy, but rather a week-long airing of political grievances that probably belongs in the Legislature, not a court of law,” Russell said.

Held v Montana is the first case of its kind in the country to go to trial, but similar youth climate suits are advancing at the federal level and in other states. Julia Olson, the chief legal counsel for the law firm representing these youth groups, said Montana’s case sets an important precedent for these other lawsuits.

“The more we see courts opening their doors to young people to come and have their claims of violations of their rights heard, it will have a persuasive and sort of a ripple effect,” Olson said.

The decision now rests in the hands of Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley. There is not a specific timeline for when she has to issue a decision, but attorneys say it will likely take a few months.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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