Montana judge sides with youth in historic climate trial

By Lesley Clark | 08/14/2023 01:36 PM EDT

A state court said Montana is violating young people’s constitutional right to a clean environment by ignoring the climate effects of fossil fuels.

A photo collage of images of several children who are suing Montana over climate issues.

The young people who sued Montana over climate issues include (top row, left to right) Sariel Sandoval, Kian Tanner, Claire Vlases and Mica Kantor; (middle row, left to right) Eva Lightiser, Grace Gibson-Snyder, Badge Busse, Georgianna Fischer and Taleah Hernandez; and (bottom row, left to right) Nathaniel King, Lilian D., Lander Busse and Rikki Held. POLITICO illustration; photos courtesy of Our Children's Trust

A Montana judge on Monday found that the Treasure State is violating its residents’ right to a clean environment — delivering a major victory to the 16 kids, teens and young adults behind the first U.S. youth-led climate trial.

Judge Kathy Seeley of the 1st District Court in Montana ruled that state lawmakers flouted Montana’s constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” when they passed a law barring agencies from considering the climate effects of fossil fuel projects.

The case is being watched nationwide as a bellwether for litigants who want to hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change. The verdict — which the state vowed to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court — could serve as a model for similar youth-led lawsuits in other states.


“Today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which represented the youth in the case. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.

Seeley in June heard seven days of testimony, including from young people who said Montana’s reliance on fossil fuels is lengthening the state’s wildfire season, drying up its rivers and worsening health conditions.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office called the ruling “absurd, but not surprising.”

Spokesperson Emily Flower added that Seeley had allowed attorneys for the youth to “put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial. “

The state constitution guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and Seeley found the Legislature violated that protection when it twice revised the Montana Environmental Policy Act to exclude consideration of climate emissions.

Lawyers for the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, which represents the 16 youth in the case, Held v. Montana, had urged Seeley to consider instances in which courts have stepped in to correct governments that had failed to protect human rights.

They argued that young people are suffering “injustices wrought by climate change caused by a fossil fuel-based energy system imposed and perpetuated through the law.”

Attorneys for the state said during the trial that Montana could do little to affect global warming. And they argued that the court could not play a role because the state constitution gives the Montana Legislature the authority to pass laws.

State Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell told Seeley that the youth could not “assume preferential status under the law to evade the democratic process and force their policy views on all Montanans without their consent or participation.”