The first-ever constitutional climate trial in United States history, led by a group of Montana youth, concluded in June. And the named plaintiff of the trial? CC’s own Rikki Held ’23. Nearly two months later, the verdict in Held v. Montana was released. Held and her fellow youth plaintiffs had won.
“It was wonderful,” says Held. “They told us that we had won, and not just that we had won but that the ruling was so broad. It was more than we could have hoped for, really.”
The 16 youth plaintiffs argued that Montana’s actions have led to climate impacts that include, but are not limited to, frequent and more destructive wildfires, lack of winter snowpack, severe flooding, worsened air quality, and extreme drought and heat conditions.
“We need to hold governments accountable because we need that structural change in our systems,” says Held. “We’ve known about this for so long, so I guess. Me joining [the case]? It didn’t really seem like there was any option. It just like seemed like the right thing to do. It was the little part that I could do to try to help.”
The trial took place June 12-23, 2023 in Helena, Montana. Not only was this the first-ever constitutional climate trial in U.S. history, it was also the first ever children’s climate trial in the country. The young Montanans asserted that, by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system that causes and contributes to the climate crisis, Montana is violating their explicit state constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment.” This youth-led climate lawsuit also argued that the state’s fossil fuel energy system degrades and depletes Montana’s constitutionally protected public trust resources.
The youth plaintiffs were also challenging the constitutionality of a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that prohibits the state from considering the impacts of climate change when making decisions about which projects to permit. Plaintiffs sought a declaration that this provision in MEPA violates their fundamental constitutional rights, including their right to a clean and healthful environment, their right to individual dignity and equal protection of the law, as well as their public trust doctrine rights.
Throughout the trial, the youth plaintiffs, their attorneys, and world-renowned experts from across Montana and the U.S. presented clear, irrefutable evidence that Montana is: promoting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels despite the availability of renewable energy sources, extracting and burning fossil fuels that cause and worsen the climate crisis, and injuring and harming the youth plaintiffs. They argued that these climate injuries and harms, caused by the actions of Montana’s government, violate the youth’s state constitutional rights.
“A week of telling these stories with emotional parts and then also getting the science into the court record. That was really important,” says Held, who majored in Environmental Science at CC. “It was one of the first times that climate science has been presented to the court in the U.S. and put in the record. So that was really exciting for me. The judge was listening to all of it and we got a lot admitted into record. The experts were amazing and went over everything from climate change, specifically in Montana, and its impacts with physical and mental health to the glaciers melting and how our ecosystems and water is impacted.”
Held v. State of Montana is one of several youth-led climate change lawsuits supported by the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust. Our Children’s Trust is the world’s only nonprofit public interest law firm exclusively dedicated to representing young people securing their legal right to a safe climate. All of the firm’s services are provided at no cost to the young people they represent and support.
People from across Montana attended the trial in Helena in the courtroom and at nearby local spaces to watch proceedings via community watch parties. Hundreds more around the world watched trial proceedings live each day via Zoom. Environmental and climate organizations from across the state hosted community gatherings and events to stand in solidarity with the Held v. State of Montana youth.
“There are many townspeople, farmers and ranchers in Eastern Montana who are concerned about climate change, but as with locations all around the U.S. it is not especially hospitable (to say the least) to direct advocacy for climate action,” says CC professor Mike Siddoway. “Rikki took a courageous stand here and the resounding, historic victory was not at all expected. The legal team and many commentators held out hope for at best a partially favorable ruling.”
On Monday, August 14, 2023, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of Held and her fellow youth plaintiffs! In the 103-page order, Judge Seeley declared that during the trial, Montana’s emissions and climate change were proven to be a “substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the Youth Plaintiffs.” Her ruling made any of the state’s statutes that prohibited analysis of and remedies for GHG emissions unconstitutional.
“Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment,” Seeley wrote in her decision, “which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.” “In many of my classes it is not uncommon to have students ask, “But what can we/I do? It all seems so daunting and hopeless!’,” says Siddoway. “I counter with stories about great social movements and lasting change that have begun with just a few deeply committed people against the greatest odds (ending slavery in the British commonwealth in the late 18th Century, Women’s suffrage in the U.S.). I now have a mighty example closer in time and to home about a Montana ranch-woman who graduated from CC.”