by Joe Uprichard
Court(s): Montana District Court
Dissenting Judgement: No
Filing Date: 2020
Last Update: 31 August 2023
Sixteen youth claimants are bringing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Montana’s State Energy Policy — based on fossil fuels — and the ‘Climate Change Exception’ within the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). They are seeking declarations that 1) the right to a clean and healthful environment enshrined in Montana’s constitution includes a right to a stable climate system; and 2) that the State Energy Policy and ‘Climate Change Exception’ to MEPA violate both the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ and constitutional provisions protecting the right to a clean and healthful environment, right to safety, health and happiness, and the right to individual dignity and equal protection.
On 13th March 2020, sixteen claimants (‘the Claimants’) between the ages of two and eighteen filed a lawsuit in the Montana state court against the State of Montana, its governor, and various state agencies (‘the Defendants’). They allege that the increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are 1) already triggering a host of adverse consequences in Montana, including increasing temperatures; 2) increasing the frequency of extreme weather events; and 3) are causing many adverse health risks, especially to children.
The Claimants initially sought both declarations and injunctive relief in relation to the constitutionality and compatibility with the ‘Public Trust Doctrine’ of the State Energy Policy and the ‘Climate Change Exception’ in MEPA, which provides that environmental review under MEPA may not include actual or potential impacts beyond Montana’s borders, being those ‘regional, national, or global in nature.’[3, 4] In response, the Defendants moved to dismiss the claim pursuant to the Montana Rules of Civil Procedure, on the basis that:
- The Claimants lacked ‘case-or-controversy’ standing, alleging that they had not been legally harmed in some way by the Defendants;
- The Claimants presented a claim barred by prudential limitation, which requires claimants to raise claims based on individual rather than generalised issues so as to avoid judicial intervention in abstract questions which have public significance, in this case raised because of the ‘political question’ being asked of the court;
- The Claimants had failed to exhaust administrative remedies.[5,6]
The Montana District Court granted the motion to dismiss in part and denied it in part. The Court distinguished the case from the Ninth Circuit ruling that the claimants in Juliana v.United States lacked standing on the basis of redressability, namely the requirement that claimants must demonstrate a likelihood that the requested relief will redress the alleged injury.[8, 9] They said that, in this instance, the Claimants only had to demonstrate that the redress sought will ‘alleviate, remedy, or prevent’ harm caused by the Defendants, and that this was possible through declaratory relief.
However, because of the political question being asked of the Court — similar to the Ninth Circuit in Juliana v.United States, they decided to dismiss the claims for injunctive relief, where the Claimants had requested a remedial climate plan and an accounting of greenhouse gas emissions, on the basis that the claims violated the political question doctrine. The Court found that it could still grant declaratory relief without imposing an injunctive remedy and allowed the claims for declaratory relief to move forward to trial. The Court further found that the Claimants had not failed to exhaust administrative remedies, namely appeals and hearings before non-judicial bodies, holding that the Claimants were entitled to bring a direct action in court to enforce their constitutional rights. The trial took place 12th – 23rd June 2023 and it was the first time in history that a youth-led climate lawsuit went to trial.
THE ARGUMENTS OF THE PARTIES
The Claimants’ Arguments:
- The Claimants have a right to a clean and healthful environment, including the right to a stable climate system under Article 2, Sections 3, 15, 17, and Article 9, Section 1 of the Montana Constitution. At its most fundamental level, a clean and healthful environment includes and requires a stable climate system capable of sustaining human life and liberties and is free from dangerous levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The Defendants — through their implementation of the State Energy Policy and authorisation of fossil fuel production consumption and combustion — are 1) going against the constitution by depleting Montana’s environment and natural resources and 2) contributing to the dangerous destabilisation of the climate system, thus depriving the Claimants of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
- The Claimants have a right to seek safety, health and happiness under Article 2, Sections 3, 15, and 17, and Article 9, Section 1 of the Montana Constitution. The perpetuation of the State Energy Policy will interfere with these rights and place the Claimants in foreseeable danger, with a lack of necessary or feasible steps being taken to address, ameliorate and/or reduce the risk of harm.
- The Claimants have a right to individual dignity and protection under Article 2, Sections 4 and 15 of the Montana Constitution. The State Energy Policy, the Climate Change Exception to MEPA, and aggregate acts by the Defendants continue to violate these rights, with the youth being disproportionately vulnerable to the irreversible adverse effects of climate change where the worst impacts will occur in the future. The State Energy Policy and Climate Change Exception to the MEPA are short-term policies that favour the present generation’s interests to the long-term detriment of the youth claimants.
- The Claimants have a right to protection of Montana’s clean and healthful environment and public trust resources for present and future generations, under Article 9, Sections 1 and 3 of the Montana Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine. By and through the State Energy Policy and the Climate Change Exception to MEPA, the Defendants have caused and continue to cause substantial waste to Public Trust Resources, and the dangerous levels of greenhouse gases authorised by the Defendants to be emitted have a scientifically demonstrable effect on the Claimants’ ability to use, access, enjoy and navigate state waters and other Public Trust Resources.
Further, Montana’s Common law, taken together with Articles 2 and 9 of the Montana Constitution provide a compelling basis for the Courts’ recognition of the Public Trust Doctrine over the atmosphere in Montana.
- The Claimants are therefore seeking declarations on the following points:
- That the State Energy Policy, acts undertaken under it, and the Climate Change Exception to MEPA are found to be in violation of the Public Trust Doctrine, and of Article 2, Sections 3, 4, and 7, and Article 9, Sections 1 and 3 of the Montana Constitution.
- That the State Energy Policy is on its face unconstitutional.
- That the Climate Change Exception to MEPA is on its face unconstitutional.
- That the fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment includes a stable climate system that sustains human lives and liberties and that said right is being violated.
The Defendant’s Arguments:
- The Defendants’ arguments on the substantive points above have not been made available; the Defendants have so far only raised the procedural arguments discussed in their motion to dismiss.
In a landmark decision for climate change litigation, the District Court of Montana ruled in favour of the Claimants.The judge found the following:
- The Claimants have standing to bring the claims addressed in this case;
- The Claimants have a fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment;
- Montana’s GHG emissions, which are traceable to the MEPA Limitation, are a ‘substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment’ and cause harm and injury to the Claimants;
- The provisions of the MEPA Limitation that prohibit analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts, which could alleviate harm to the Claimants and prevent future injuries, are invalid and unconstitutional because they violate the Claimants’ right to a clean and healthful environment.
A link to the original complaint filed by the claimants can be found here, with the court’s order on the motion to dismiss filed by the defendants available here and the Court’s judgement available here [32, 33].Last edited on 17 Aug 2023; with thanks to the case editor, Virginia Raffaeli.
 Ibid., para. 7.
 Ibid., para. 8.
 Montana Code Annotated 2021, Title 75 (Environmental Protection), Chapter 1 (Environmental Policy and Protection Generally), Part 2 (Environmental Impact Statements),(2)(a). <https://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/title_0750/chapter_0010/part_0020/section_0010/0750-0010-0020-0010.html> accessed on 19th August, 2022.
 Held v. State of Montana, No. CDV-2020-307, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct. Aug. 4, 2021 (Order to Dismiss), (hereafter ‘Held v. State of Montana, Order to Dismiss’), p. 2, line. 21.
 Montana Code Annotated 2021, Title 25 (Civil Procedure), Chapter 20 (Rules of Civil Procedure), III (Pleadings and Motions), Rules of Civil Procedure, 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(h)(3). <https://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/title_0250/chapter_0200/part_0030/section_0120/0250-0200-0030-0120.html> accessed on 19th August, 2022.
 Held v. State of Montana, Order to Dismiss, p. 25, line. 1.
 Held v. State of Montana, Order to Dismiss, p.16, line. 23
 Juliana v. United States, 947 F.3d 1159 (9th Cir. 2020).
 Held v. State of Montana, Order to Dismiss, p.17, lines. 4
 Ibid., p. 21, lines. 4-20.
 Ibid., p. 22, line. 3.
 Ibid., pp. 23-24, lines. 3-25 and 1-19, respectively
 ‘Historic Climate Trial: Held v. State of Montana’ https://www.youthvgov.org/held-v-montana accessed on 25 May 2023
 Held v. State of Montana, Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, p. 91, para. 211.
 Ibid. pp. 91-92, paras. 214-215.
 Held v. State, No. CDV-2020-307, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct. March. 13, 2020 (Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief; Claims) p. 92, para.216
 Ibid., p. 93, para. 219.
 Ibid., pp. 93-94, paras. 221-224.
 Ibid., p. 95, para. 227.
 Ibid., pp. 95-96, paras. 229, 234.
 Ibid., p. 97, para. 236.
 Ibid., p. 98, para. 239.
 Ibid., p. 101, para. 248.
 Ibid., p. 99, para. 244.
 Held v. State, No. CDV-2020-307, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct. March. 13, 2020 (Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief; Prayer for Relief) p.102, para.1
 Ibid., p. 102, para. 2.
 Ibid., p. 102, para. 3.
 Ibid., p. 103, para. 4.
 ibid (n14).
 Held v.State of Montana, No. CDV-2020-301, Mont. 1st Dist. Ct. Aug. 14,2023 (Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order) p. 101-102, paras 1-11.
 Held v. State of Montana, Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief.
 Held v. State of Montana, Order to Dismiss