Youth Climate Lawsuit Held v. State of Montana Dismissed But Seen As Legal Milestone
A pioneering lawsuit, Held v. State of Montana, brought by 16 young plaintiffs seeking to establish a constitutional right to a healthy environment in Montana, has ended after the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. While the case was ultimately unsuccessful in court, legal experts say Held v. State of Montana sets an important precedent for future environmental rights litigation by upholding the legal standing for youth to sue governments over climate inaction.
The lawsuit, known as Held v. State of Montana, was originally filed against the state government in 2020 and was represented by not-for-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust. It alleged violations of Montana’s constitutional environmental rights provisions and failure to protect natural resources. The plaintiffs were a group of youths aged 10 to 24 at the time of filing. Their complaint cited worsening impacts in Montana, like droughts, wildfires, and air pollution, as evidence the state had neglected its responsibility to maintain a healthy environment for current and future generations.
Held v. State of Montana demanded tangible action from the state government to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, it asked the court to order Montana officials to develop a comprehensive climate recovery plan with binding emissions reductions. It also sought a mandate for the state to begin monitoring carbon emissions within its borders every year.
However, the district court and appeals court ruled against the youth plaintiffs, stating the judicial branch could not impose such prescriptive climate mitigation policies on the executive branch of government. In February 2022, the Montana Supreme Court declined to review the lower court rulings, exhausting the legal options and effectively ending the chance for a courtroom victory.
Despite the dismissal, youth advocates and legal experts say the lawsuit established meaningful precedents that can empower future environmental rights cases. Most significantly, both the district and appeals courts affirmed the young plaintiffs had legal standing to sue the state of Montana based on their vulnerability to harm from climate change and environmental degradation.
The rulings acknowledged that younger generations would disproportionately bear the burdens of state government inaction on climate change, giving them a tangible interest in the case. Federal courts have frequently rejected youth climate lawsuits in other states based on lack of standing, making the Montana rulings of Held v. State of Montana notable.
Moreover, the Montana courts upheld key aspects of the landmark 1999 MEIC state Supreme Court decision that originally established constitutional environmental rights endowed to all Montana citizens. The Held v. State of Montana case validates that Montanans still possess those constitutionally codified environmental rights, even if the courts declined to prescribe specific government actions.
Advocates say the lawsuit follows in the vein of dozens of “atmospheric trust” legal cases brought by youth worldwide asserting rights to a healthy environment and pressing governments for greater climate action. While many similar lawsuits have struggled to achieve concrete policy changes or regulations thus far, they strengthen legal foundations for the future.
Even in its dismissal, legal experts state the Held v. State of Montana lawsuit heightened public discussion around whether the state government owes citizens certain environmental duties under the constitution. It also demonstrated that youth have the power to shape legal narratives around climate change threats despite suffering setbacks along the way.
Looking forward, the most significant legacy of Held v. State of Montana may be its influence on youth climate activism and future legal strategies that invoke constitutional environmental rights protections. Though unsuccessful in the courtroom, the plaintiffs’ journey leaves the door open for new legal theories and continued public pressure on Montana to uphold the environmental rights enshrined in its constitution.