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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Montana Supreme Court hears oral arguments in youth-led climate trial

A sign reading "Montana Youth Making Climate History! Held v. State of Montana. #YouthPoweredClimateTrial" outside the courthouse at the 2023 District Court trial.
Ellis Juhlin
A sign reading "Montana Youth Making Climate History! Held v. State of Montana. #YouthPoweredClimateTrial" outside the courthouse at the 2023 District Court trial.

Montana’s Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in the state’s appeal of a lower court ruling in the youth-led climate case Held v Montana. Sixteen young people are suing Montana for failing to act on climate change. They say that the state's fossil fuel friendly policies are violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.

Elinor Smith Hi, Ellis, thanks for being here today. Remind us, what's this case about?

Ellis Juhlin Sixteen young people are suing Montana for failing to act on climate change. They say that the state's fossil fuel friendly policies are violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.

In August of 2023, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the kids, blocking a 2023 law that prohibited state environmental regulators from considering climate change contributions and greenhouse gas emissions. When they're looking at the environmental impacts of a proposed development project, the state then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court this past winter, and this week's hearing is the latest. Lawyers for the state and lawyers for the youth plaintiffs presented their arguments before the highest court in Montana.

Elinor Smith Were there any new arguments now that the case has reached the Supreme Court?

Ellis Juhlin Yes and no. Two lawyers spoke on behalf of the state, and they did reiterate some arguments that we heard during the trial. Basically, that Montana alone is not responsible for climate change, so Montana alone can't fix it. Here's the state's lawyer, Dale Schowengerdt in court.

"Global climate change is a complex issue that can't be resolved by judicial decision."

Ellis Juhlin The lawyers for the state also said that even if the Supreme Court upholds the lower court's ruling, and state agencies can look at greenhouse gas emissions and climate change contributions, it doesn't mean that has to be done. And agencies can't deny a permit for a proposed development project on the grounds of climate change.

Lawyers for the 16 youth plaintiffs reiterated their arguments from the trial, that climate change is affecting the plaintiffs and infringing on their right to a clean and healthy environment. They said that striking down that 2023 law is the first step in addressing these harms. Here's their attorney, Roger Sullivan.

"This legislatively imposed double headed hydra closes the eyes of Montana's environmental agencies to the most serious environmental crisis Montana has ever experienced: The climate crisis."

Elinor Smith And how did the justices respond to these arguments?

Ellis Juhlin The justices had a lot of questions for the state, particularly concerning this argument that if the court says the agencies can consider climate change impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn't mean any permits will be denied for some potential fossil fuel project. This back and forth between State Attorney Dale Schowengerdt and Chief Justice Mike McGrath, that's an example of that kind of questioning.

Schowengerdt: "And that's the part of the problem with this case, is that the Court is being asked to address those issues of what is required as far as greenhouse gas emissions analysis in the abstract. Second, I'd like to talk about ..."

McGrath: "That's not exactly right, is it? I mean, court's not being asked to, to determine what should be in a greenhouse gas emission. The only question before the Court is whether or not the state agency is precluded from looking at greenhouse gas emissions."

Schowengerdt: "I don't think so, your Honor."

Ellis Juhlin Nearly every justice on the bench asked the state's lawyers questions or challenged points of their arguments in the hearing, and that kind of a response wasn't the case for the youth plaintiff's attorney when he went up and gave his arguments.

Elinor Smith And zooming out a bit now, Montana is not the only state that has one of these climate cases playing out, right?

Ellis Juhlin That's right. The law firm, Our Children's Trust, which has lawyers representing the youth in Montana, has also helped young people bring climate cases in other states and two cases at the federal level. They recently settled a case in Hawaii against the state's Department of Transportation. And there are two cases pending in Alaska and Utah. The group is also appealing two federal cases that were previously dismissed.

Elinor Smith How could Montana's case affect these other ones in process?

Ellis Juhlin So Montana's case was the first to go to trial out of any youth led constitutional climate case in the country, and that's due largely to our "clean and healthful" clause in the Constitution. We're one of only a handful of states with that kind of explicit environmental language in our guiding document.

Elinor Smith So now that the Supreme Court has heard arguments, what's next?

Ellis Juhlin Now we wait for the court to rule on this case, and we can expect that ruling sometime before the next legislative session starts up in January of 2025. The justices have indicated they plan to rule within that time frame. The Court has also said that it will rule on the Held case and another case about the Laurel gas plant at the same time. That's a case where environmental groups have sued over Northwestern Energy's generating facility on the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Elinor Smith What will happen after a Supreme Court ruling?

Ellis Juhlin Well, it's really the buck stops here because this case is predicated on the Montana state Constitution. The Montana Supreme Court has final jurisdiction here.

Elinor Smith Well, thanks for breaking this down, Ellis. I'm sure you'll keep following this as it moves forward.

Ellis Juhlin I'm sure I will. Thanks for talking with me, Elinor.

MTPR’s Ellis Juhlin was in the courtroom and has been covering the case since it went to trial last summer. 

Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

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.

ellis.juhlin@mso.umt.edu
406-272-2568
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