A Breath of Fresh Air for Children and Youth in Montana: Held v. State of Montana

  • October 23, 2023
  • Laura Pettigrew

I recently wrote an article about children and youth in Canada tackling climate change through environmental litigation. Despite limited results, their efforts have been impressive. A similar case from south of the border is currently generating considerable interest. Held v. State of Montana, which was decided in August 2023, involves a successful constitutional challenge to state law brought by 16 youth plaintiffs. When the lawsuit commenced, the plaintiffs were between the ages of two and 18 years. The defendants consisted of various state authorities.

Held v. State of Montana addresses provisions of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, in existence since 2011. The 2011 version of the Act prohibited the state from considering any environmental impact outside of Montana’s borders when conducting an environmental review – specifically, it could not include “actual or potential impacts that are regional, national, or global in nature”. In 2023, the Act was amended to specifically state that environmental reviews “may not include an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state's borders."

The later amendments also removed remedies available to the public and litigants in environmental protection matters. The Court’s decision reviewed the limiting statutory provisions against the backdrop of the State Constitution, which provides that the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Ultimately, the Court declared the challenged laws to be unconstitutional and permanently enjoined. It also prohibited the State defendants from acting in accordance with the impugned statutory provisions.

What I personally found refreshing about the decision was the significant effort made by the District Court Judge who heard the case to humanize the plaintiffs in her judgement. The individual circumstances of the children and youth before her remained central in her reasons. After succinctly setting out scientific facts relating to greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change in Montana, the Judge poignantly described the respective physical, emotional, financial, social, cultural, and other hardships experienced by each of the plaintiffs. For instance, when discussing one youth the judge wrote,