"Unusually high" number of amicus briefs filed in Montana teen environmental lawsuit

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 6:41 PM, Feb 23, 2024

HELENA — Last summer, after a weeklong trial, a judge in Helena ruled in favor of 16 young plaintiffs who challenged the state of Montana over the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. It was a ruling that state leaders quickly appealed, and that appeal is set to go before the Montana Supreme Court in the coming months.

In the highly watched case of Held v. Montana, the plaintiffs – aged between 5 and 22 – claimed Montana’s handling of greenhouse gas emissions was contributing to climate change and harming their rights, as established in the state constitution.

In her ruling, District Judge Kathy Seeley wrote that climate could be considered part of the “clean and healthful environment” the constitution guarantees. She said there was a “fairly traceable connection” between a state law that prevented regulators from considering greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews, and the climate impacts that contributed to the plaintiffs’ harms. Seeley declared that law unconstitutional, along with another that said challenges over greenhouse gases can’t generally be used to void or delay a permit.

Supporters of the plaintiffs called the ruling a landmark, connecting the state’s energy policies to the impacts of climate change – and potentially establishing a precedent for future climate-related court cases.

However, attorneys for the state argued in their appeal brief, filed earlier this month, that the case should never have reached trial. They said climate policy is a political issue that shouldn’t be decided in the courts, and they questioned whether the remedies the plaintiffs were seeking would resolve the harms they had pointed to.

The extensive interest in the Held case can be seen in the number of amicus briefs – filings from groups or individuals who aren’t directly involved in the case, but asked the court to consider their input. As of Friday, the Montana Supreme Court had received nine amicus briefs for this appeal – which Supreme Court Clerk Bowen Greenwood told MTN is far more than a typical case.

The amicus filings include a brief from House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, who argued it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to enact laws to ensure a clean and healthful environment and that Seeley’s decision overstepped on their authority.

Other briefs came from Montana chambers of commerce and other business groups, who said the decision could lead to more litigation holding up projects and delaying needed investment in Montana. A group of 15 Republican attorneys general from other states said the judge’s order would inevitably encourage Montana to make decisions that would interfere with energy policy outside the state’s borders, impacting other states’ rights.

The plaintiffs will have until next month to submit their brief in response to the state’s appeal. After that, the state will have the opportunity to make one more reply before the case is sent to the Supreme Court justices.

Once the justices have the case, it will be up to them to decide when they’re ready to make a ruling.