Sixteen Montana young people are making history by suing Montana government for violating their inalienable constitutional rights. Held v. State of Montana, the first constitutional climate trial in U.S. history, is scheduled to begin June 12, 2023, in the 1st Judicial District Court in Helena.
The 16 plaintiffs ranged in age from 2 to 18 years old when they filed their original claim in 2020, and come from large and small communities, including Broadus, Missoula, Bozeman, Polson, Kalispell, Helena, Livingston, and the Flathead Indian Reservation. They are represented by Our Children’s Trust, the Western Environmental Law Center, and McGarvey Law. Our Children’s Trust is a non-profit law firm that exclusively represents young people securing their right to a safe climate, based on the best available science. The firm has represented youth in all 50 states with cases currently pending in seven states and five countries.
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The plaintiffs assert that Montana’s government is violating three of their inalienable constitutional rights:
The right to a clean and healthful environment;
The right to seek safety, health, and happiness; and
The right to individual dignity and equal protection of the law.
The plaintiffs also argue that fossil fuels degrade Montana’s constitutionally protected public trust resources, including the atmosphere, rivers and lakes, and wildlife. The case argues the state of Montana has been aware of fossil fuels’ dangers since at least 1968 and government actions have knowingly caused and made climate change worse.
Montana’s Constitution establishes several inalienable rights, including the right to a clean and healthful environment. Inalienable rights are not transferable and can’t be taken away or nullified; they flow from our nature as free people. Moreover, Article IX, Section 1.1 states “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
The suit doesn’t challenge a specific law or agency action, rather the plaintiffs argue that “the totality of various government actions contributes to the deprivation of their constitutionally protected rights.” It argues that Montana’s extensive support for fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas is unconstitutional because the resulting pollution is dangerously heating the planet. Montana is the sixth largest coal producer in the U.S. and ranks 12th in oil production and 20th in natural gas production. Montana government support and even encouragement of these harmful industries has robbed these young people of a healthy environment.
The plaintiffs are seeking “declaratory relief.” They want the judge to acknowledge that fossil fuels are causing pollution and warming the planet and declare the state’s support for these industries unconstitutional. This would establish an important legal precedent and case law stating that the burning of fossil fuels is dangerously warming the planet. A victory for the Montana youth would help create a foundation for other climate cases. The Held v State of Montana court case would put fossil fuels and climate change on trial and could force Montana state government to change energy policies.
The case may be settled out of court. Either way, you can support these courageous youth by going online to the Our Children’s Trust website and adding your name to the “wall” of support for the Montana case at ourchildrenstrust.org/montana-call-to-action. If it goes to trial, you can also attend the trial, assemble outside of the courthouse, or watch a live stream of the trial at the Myrna Loy Theater in Helena.
The League of Women Voters believes that climate is beyond crisis and has reached the point of being a climate emergency. Thank you to these courageous youths who are taking action to challenge Montana’s fossil fuel future!