Held v. Montana, No. CDV-2020-307 (Mont. 1st Dist. Ct.) (14 Aug. 2023)

Climate Change Greenhouse gases Litigation
Constitutions Right to Healthy Environment
Environmental Impact Assessment
Public Trust Doctrine
Right to ... Healthy Environment

In a case brought by 16 youth, the Montana District Court for Lewis and Clark County found the State of Montana violated the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by prohibiting analysis of GHG emissions and climate impacts of projects in decision-making processes. The Court determined that Montana’s GHG emissions are fairly traceable to this prohibition and that these emissions “are a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the Youth Plaintiffs.” Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order, page 101.

Before reaching these conclusions and others, the Court carefully described evidence it received, including testimony at trial. After reviewing the credentials of each of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and describing their input, the court added that the expert “is a well-qualified expert, and the Court found his testimony informative and credible” Id., page 18 (see also pages 19, 27, 28, 37, 39, 65, 66 and 81).

The Court detailed impacts that climate change is having on the state’s economy, glaciers (including those in Glacier National Park), water, rivers, lakes, droughts, flooding, forests, wildlife, temperature, precipitation and snowpack. Id., pages 35-46. It also described the impacts each of the youth plaintiffs suffer due to Montana’s changing climate. Id., pages 46-64. Finally, it determined that “[t]he State’s actions exacerbate anthropogenic climate change and cause further harms to Montana’s environment and its citizens, especially its youth.” Id., page 80 (citations omitted).

The Court concluded that the plaintiffs had proven they have suffered injuries:

Youth Plaintiffs have experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the State’s failure to consider GHGs and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness.

Id., page 86.

Plaintiffs asserted that several constitutional rights had been violated as well as the Public Trust Doctrine. Id., page 2. The Court recognized that all of the constitutional claims were predicated on whether the state violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to a healthy environment found in Articles II and IX of the state’s constitution. The Court also recognized that in Montana, the Public Trust Doctrine is codified in Article IX. Id., page 92.

Montana’s Constitution includes the right to a clean and healthful environment as an inalienable right and provides, “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Id., page 94 (citing to Mont. Const. Art. II, Sec. 3 and quoting Mont. Const. Art. IX, Sec. 1(1)). The Court found that “Montana’s climate, environment, and natural resources are unconstitutionally degraded and depleted due to the current atmospheric concentration of GHGs and climate change.” Id. at page 98.

The Court explained that the purpose of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which governs the state’s environmental impact assessment process, is to aid agency decision-making and help the state meet its constitutional obligations. Id., page 98. In part, Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of amendments to MEPA (“the MEPA Limitation”) that “forbid[] the State and its agents from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or climate change in their environmental reviews.” Id., page 2. The Court found that:

By enacting and enforcing the MEPA Limitation, the State is failing to meet their affirmative duty to protect Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment, and to protect Montana’s natural resources from unreasonable depletion. . . .

By prohibiting consideration of climate change, GHG emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution, the MEPA Limitation violates Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is facially unconstitutional.

Id., pages 99-100. Finally, the Court declared that “Montana’s GHG emissions have been proven to be fairly traceable to the MEPA Limitation.” Id., page 101.

Ultimately, the Court found in favor of the plaintiffs. The Court declared “Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system” (Id., page 102); declared the MEPA Limitation unconstitutional and permanently enjoined it; prohibited defendants from acting in accordance with the enjoined provisions of law; and invited Plaintiffs to file a motion requesting and substantiating an award of attorney fees and costs. Id., pages 102-103.