This June, 16 young Montanans sat in Judge Kathy Seeley’s courtroom in Montana’s First Judicial District Court for the first-ever constitutional climate trial in the U.S. After three years of waiting, these youth finally had the chance to explain to the judge, and the world, how Montana’s government is violating their constitutional rights, including their fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment.
Today, Judge Seeley ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, writing, “The [Montana Environmental Policy Act] Limitation is unconstitutionally contributing to the depletion and degradation of Montana’s environment and natural resources and contributing to Plaintiffs’ injuries. The MEPA Limitation deprives Plaintiffs of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.” Such a ruling in this landmark case shows that Montana’s government is indeed infringing on the constitutional rights of its citizens and causing direct harm through the proliferation of fossil fuels and refusal to consider climate impacts.
Judge Seely wrote: “In terms of per capita emissions, Montana’s consumption of fossil fuels is disproportionately large and only five states have greater per capita emissions. Montana is a major emitter of [greenhouse gas] emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically.”
She continued: “The current barriers to implementing renewable energy systems are not technical or economic, but social and political. Such barriers primarily result from government policies that slow down and inhibit the transition to renewables, and laws that allow utilization of fossil fuel development and preclude a faster transition to a clean, renewable energy system.”
Western Environmental Law Center Senior Attorneys Barbara Chillcott and Melissa Hornbein, along with Roger Sullivan of McGarvey Law, worked as local counsel on this case developed by Our Children’s Trust.
“It is incredibly gratifying to see a Montana court recognize the effects the state’s harmful energy policies have on young people and all Montanans,” said Barbara Chillcott, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Judge Seeley’s ruling underscores the reality that Montana’s government is actively working to undermine our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. Despite the state’s attempts to avoid any responsibility, the court’s decision affirms that the state has the ‘discretion to deny permits for fossil fuel activities that would result in unconstitutional levels of greenhouse gas emissions, unconstitutional degradation and depletion of Montana’s environment and natural resources, or infringement of the constitutional rights of Montanans and Youth Plaintiffs.’ This decision sets important precedent for other constitutional climate cases in the U.S., and, most importantly, gives these youth plaintiffs some hope for a better future.”
“Judge Seeley’s decision comes at a time when we’re seeing the impacts of climate change accelerate– from low streamflows and lake levels to unprecedented heat waves, floods, and wildfires” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “These are the climate realities the youth plaintiffs and expert witnesses told us about on the stand, while the state disclaimed any responsibility and dismissed them. We’re relieved that the court recognized that these youth plaintiffs are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, as well as the dangers threatening their future if the state doesn’t take meaningful action to address it. We’re also delighted that Judge Seeley recognized Montana’s significant role as an emitter on the global stage, as well as its ability—constrained only by a resistant government—to rectify its disproportionate contribution to the climate crisis.”
Judge Seeley’s ruling sets an important precedent in the nascent field of U.S. constitutional climate cases. A similar case brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the U.S. government in 2015, Juliana v. United States, is on the precipice of proceeding to trial after eight years of legal challenges. In Hawai’i, where catastrophic, climate-fueled wildfires have claimed at least 96 lives in recent days, the youth plaintiffs in Navahine F. v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation are heading to trial next summer.
“Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” said Julia Olson, Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director with Our Children’s Trust “In a sweeping win for our clients, the Honorable Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and enjoined their implementation. As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, 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. This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”
We expect this case to come before the Montana Supreme Court, where we look forward to the opportunity for Montana’s highest court to affirm Judge Seeley’s reasoned decision, which was grounded in the overwhelming evidence we presented at trial through the youth plaintiffs and our world-renowned experts.