Joshua Fuller, MJLST Staffer
The battle about climate change rages on. But one group of young students has dealt a significant blow to the state of Montana, claiming that under the Montana Constitution they have a right to a clean environment. This victory, while small in its effect, has reverberated across the nation. This case, Held v. Montana, is the first of its kind. Never before has there been a ruling that a clean environment was a right of a state’s citizens. And while the case will certainly be taken up by the Montana Supreme Court, the door has been opened for climate change activists to consider potential litigation across the country.
Background About the Case:
The Montana Constitution includes the following provision: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways.” The phrase “right to a clean and healthful environment” is the basis on which the sixteen Montana youth (“the plaintiffs”) filed suit. They sued the state of Montana arguing that the passage of the State Energy Policy Act (the “Act”), which prohibited the state from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas emission when performing an environmental review, violates the clean environment provision in the Montana Constitution. Judge Kathy Seeley, the District Court Judge for the 1st District, agreed with the plaintiffs. In her order, Judge Seeley found that the Act was unconstitutional under the ruling of Park Cnty: “Pursuant to the Court’s decision in Park Cnty., Mont. Code Ann. § 75-1-201(6)(a)(ii) is facially unconstitutional because it eliminates MEPA litigants’ remedies that prevent irreversible degradation of the environment, and it fails to further a compelling state interest.” Shortly after the decision was rendered, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General, Austen Knudsen, stated, “This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial” and stated that the Attorney General would be seeking an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court.
While the future of the case is less than certain, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the plaintiffs. The Montana Supreme Court has often taken the position that the text of the Montana Constitution governs. In their recent decision in Board of Regents of Higher Education v. State, the Court struck down House Bill 102, a firearms bill that would have allowed carrying on Montana public college campuses. A unanimous Court found that under the Montana Constitution, the Board of Regents had controlling power when deciding gun regulations on college campuses. Given the heavy firearms culture that exists in Montana, this decision was of great surprise to many. But the case gave important context to the priorities of the Court. Given the decision to faithfully follow the Montana Constitution, this does give a glimmer of where the Court may lean when the decision goes up for appeal, if the Court takes it up. Additionally, Montana has traditionally been a bulwark of conservation of the land. Two well known National Parks, Glacier and Yellowstone, exist within the boundaries of the state. Protecting the environment, despite the misgivings of the current state administration, has been an important part of the culture. In Montana, Fish, Wildlife & Parks offers conservation easements with landowners, where the landowners are paid by the department to conserve certain parts of their land and limit the use. With several parts of the government for protecting the environment, and a long standing tradition of conservation, there is reason to believe that the Montana Supreme Court would rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
Implications of the Case
Despite the spokeperson’s statements, the reaction to the decision nationally has been overwhelmingly supportive. Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Litigation at Columbia University, stated, “Emissions contribute to climate change, climate harms are real, people can experience climate harms individually, and every ton of greenhouse gas emissions matters. These are important factual findings, and other courts in the U.S. and around the world will look to this decision.” Similar litigation has already begun to occur. In Oregon, a county sued major oil companies for exacerbating the current climate change crisis. But Held is the first time that a state has been held accountable for actions that the state attempted to create to get around climate change measures. As of the writing of this article, only six states have provisions in their constitutions that citizens have the right to a clean environment: Hawai’i, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania. While this may seem insignificant, the holding in Held is a first step for citizens to fight climate change. The court’s decision gives groundwork to other prospective plaintiffs on how to formulate litigation surrounding issues that deal with climate change.
A New Type of Law?
Perhaps the most important impact of Held is the potential for a new body of law. Environmental law has existed for decades, harkening back to the era of Theodore Roosevelt and his decision to create the National Parks. However, its intersection with constitutional law has only been more recent, and it is far less defined. Despite agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service, litigation surrounding climate change has only emerged in the past couple of decades. This vacuum of law is ripe for the filling. This new law springs forward from the enjoinment of environmental law and constitutional law. This new “Green Constitutional Law” surfaces from the idea that state constitutions have provisions in place that protect the environment and establish the right to a clean climate. Held provides an outline for what green constitutional law may look like. The litigation emanating in other states, and the call for more action to curb global warming, speak to the necessity of such a new form of law. At its core, green constitutional law addresses the idea that all people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Because the rise of climate change threatens the existence of countless species, including humans, it can be reasonably asked whether the United States Constitution, so quoted above, gives the right to an environment in which its citizens can survive and flourish. A new form of law is arising to help answer this question, to which Held is the foot in the door to begin this change. The battle may be won, but the war has just begun.
 Mont. Const. Art. II, § 4.
 Held v. Montana, No. CDV-2020-307 (Mont. Dist. Ct., 2023).
 David Gelles and Mike Baker, Judge Rules in Favor of Montana Youths in a Landmark Climate Case, The New York Times (Aug. 14, 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/14/us/montana-youth-climate-ruling.html.
 Mont. Const. art. X, § 9(2)(a).
 Bd. of Regents of Higher Educ. of Mont. v. State, 1, 12 (2022 MT 128).
 FWP, Habitat Montana, (Last visited Sept. 29, 2023) https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/landowner-programs/habitat-montana.
 Clark Mindock, US Climate Change Lawsuit Seeks $50 Billion, Citing 2021 Heat Wave, Reuters (June 22, 2023 8:08 PM CDT) https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-climate-change-lawsuit-seeks-50-billion-citing-2021-heat-wave-2023-06-22/.
 John C. Dernbach, The Environmental Rights Provisions of U.S. State Constitutions: A Comparative Analysis, 1 Widener University – Commonwealth Law School (2023).
 Kate Burgess, Green Amendments in 2023: States Continue Efforts to Make a Healthy Environment a Legal Right, National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, (Mar. 27, 2023) https://www.ncelenviro.org/articles/green-amendments-in-2023-states-continue-efforts-to-make-a-healthy-environment-a-legal-right/.
 The Declaration of Independence para.2 (U.S. 1776).