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Montana tribes file amicus brief to Supreme Court in climate change ruling

The Environmental Justice Clinic filed the brief on behalf of five federally recognized Montana tribes
Montana Tribal Flags
Posted at 1:51 PM, Apr 26, 2024

MISSOULA — The Environmental Justice Clinic this week filed an amicus brief with the Montana Supreme Court, joining the fight to ensure that the landmark Held v. State of Montana ruling of last year is upheld in the face of the state's appeal.

The clinic at the Vermont Law and Graduate School filed the brief on behalf of five federally recognized Montana tribes and two Indigenous education scholars.

“The amicus brief details the unique connections that Indigenous people in Montana, including Plaintiffs, have with the environment and how preserving that environment is essential to protecting the ability of Native Nations to practice, maintain and pass on their culture,” said Nathan Bellinger, a senior attorney at Our Children’s Trust and the lead litigator in the case.

The case was brought before Montana District Court last year by 16 youth plaintiffs represented by Our Children’s Trust. Together, they argued that their rights to a clean and healthful environment under the Montana Constitution were being violated by the state’s ongoing promotion and use of fossil fuels.

In her ruling, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found that that plaintiffs had indeed suffered injuries caused by the climate crisis, and that the state's actions had contributed to climate change. She also determined that the plaintiffs' injuries were in violation of their state constitutional rights.

The state appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court in February, arguing that the statute the judge struck down as unconstitutional could not solely be responsible for climate change and, as a result, the case never should have been decided in the first place.

“The District Court never should have reached the merits of this lawsuit because the Held plaintiffs lack case-or-controversy standing,” the state argued in its appeal. “The Montana Environmental Policy Act — which is comprised solely of procedural statutes—did not cause plaintiffs’ alleged climate change injuries.”

But the Environmental Justice Clinic disagrees and said this week that Native Nations and Indigenous people depend upon a clean and healthful environment to “practice, maintain and pass on their culture.”

Because the Montana Constitution protects these interests, the brief argues that the state is obligated to protect the “individual dignity, education, culture and treaty rights of Indigenous individuals and Native Nations.”

The amicus brief names the Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation; The Chippewa Cree Indians of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation; The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation; The Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation; The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians; and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

“The fight for climate justice and the fight for tribal sovereignty are interlinked, and we hope that the (Supreme) Court takes into consideration the unique rights afforded to the tribes of Montana as sovereign nations,” Environmental Justice Center Director Mia Montoya Hammersley said in a statement.