Held v. State of Montana Trial Summary

By Temi Lawal

To read more about case details click here.


The trial of the case of Held v. State of Montana commenced on June 12, 2023, marking the first time a constitutional law climate lawsuit led by youth plaintiffs has gone to trial in the United States [1]. This case challenges the constitutionality of Montana’s State Energy Policy and the ‘Climate Change Exception’ within the Montana Environmental Policy Act (‘MEPA’), with the plaintiffs asserting their rights to a stable climate system and a clean and healthful environment [2]. Throughout the trial, compelling arguments were presented by both parties, shedding light on the significant issues at stake.


The plaintiffs argue that the State of Montana’s permitting of fossil fuel activities contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which harm the environmental life support system crucial for the well-being of the youth. They express concerns about the state’s failure to deny permits for such activities despite their contribution to climate change. Criticism has been raised regarding the state’s prioritisation of economic interests over environmental considerations [3].

The Trial:

The trial began at the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, Helena, Montana with an opening statement by the plaintiffs’ counsel. Testimony was then provided by Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, who highlighted how the state’s climate is no longer clean or safe, despite constitutional provisions.

Plaintiff Testimonies:

Several youth plaintiffs, including Rikki, Grace, and Eva, shared their personal experiences and hardships caused by the climate crisis. Rikki spoke about working in extreme heat and smoke on her family’s ranch, while Grace recounted the challenges of playing soccer during smoke-filled practices. Eva shared her firsthand account of helping with flood mitigation efforts during severe flooding near her home. Despite their difficult experiences, the plaintiffs expressed optimism for the future and emphasised the transformative potential of a successful outcome in the case [4].

Plaintiffs’ Expert Testimonies:

Dr. Cathy Whitlock, an earth scientist and professor at Montana State University, provided testimony linking Montana’s fossil fuel activities, GHG emissions to adverse environmental and public health impacts. Her expertise helped establish the scientific basis for the plaintiffs’ claims, reinforcing the connection between human activities and climate change. Dr. Steven Running, a climate scientist, explained that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions caused the climate crisis. Dr. Running emphasised the need to reduce the CO2 concentration in order to stabilise the climate system and outlined the adverse impacts on the youth plaintiffs, warning that their injuries would worsen without significant action [5]. 

Defendant Expert Witness Testimonies:

Witnesses for the State of Montana included Christopher Dorrington, Sonja Nowakowski, and Dr. Terry Anderson. Christopher Dorrington, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), stated that the DEQ’s role is to implement the laws of Montana regarding environmental concerns. During cross-examination, he affirmed that the activities the DEQ permits contribute to GHG emissions in Montana. Sonja Nowakowski, Administrator for the Air, Energy, and Mining Division at Montana DEQ, acknowledged that the DEQ could not deny permits for fossil fuel activities, despite their contribution to climate change. She also admitted that the GHGs inventory did not accurately depict emissions that were exported out of state. Dr. Terry Anderson, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, provided brief testimony about Energy Information Administration data on GHG emissions. Notably, the State did not call to the stand its climate science witness, Judith Curry; its mental health witness, Debra Sheppard; and some other witnesses [6].

Public Interest and Support: 

The trial garnered significant local and global attention. People across Montana gathered in the courtroom and local spaces, with many others participating in community watch parties and virtual proceedings via Zoom. The presence of national media outlets ensured widespread coverage of the trial, further drawing attention to the importance of the case. Environmental and climate organisations throughout the state organised community gatherings and events to express solidarity with the youth plaintiffs, highlighting the broad support for their cause [7]. 

Update on the trial: [8]

On August 14, 2023, the Montana Court ruled in favour of the young plaintiffs. In the conclusions of law, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the claims and the MEPA limitation violated the Montana Constitution with regards the plaintiffs right to a clean and healthful Environment. Therefore, the judgement not only sets a precedent that the plaintiffs have a right to bring the claims but also that the injury caused to the plaintiffs is directly linked to the GHG emissions of the State of Montana. 


The Held v. State of Montana trial represents a significant milestone in the fight against the climate crisis. The arguments presented by the plaintiffs underscore the urgency of addressing the climate crisis and the need for constitutional protections for a stable climate system and a clean and healthful environment. 


[1] Dharna Noor, Groundbreaking youth-led climate trial comes to an end in Montana, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jun/20/held-v-montana-climate-trial-youth-end, accessed on June. 27, 2023
[2] Held v. State of Montana, No. CDV-2020-307, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct. March. 13, 2020 (Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief)
[3] Ibid
[4] Youth v. Gov, Daily trial updates June. 12, 2023, https://www.youthvgov.org/held-v-montana, accessed on June. 26, 2023
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid, Daily trial updates June. 19, 2023
[7] Ibid, What happened at trial?
[8] Held v. State of Montana, No. CDV-2020-307, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct., August 14, 2023 (Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order), https://westernlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/2023.08.14-Held-v.-Montana-victory-order.pdf

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