Youth v. Gov: For the future of our planet
by Liv Lufkin | September 28, 2023
Held v Montana plaintiffs are cheered on by supporters as they arrive for their second day of trial. Photo by Robin Loznak, courtesy of Our Children’s Trust.
Held v. Montana is leading the fight for climate justice in the courts
This summer, climate activists from around the nation flocked to Helena, Montana to cheer on the 16 youth plaintiffs suing the Montana state government for a stable and healthy climate, in the first constitutional climate trial in US History. On August 14, 2023, the incredible news broke: in a landmark decision, the Montana state court ruled that Montana’s laws promoting fossil fuels and ignoring climate change violated the youth’s state constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment. During my internship at Crag, I got to watch part of the trial (virtually) in real time, and wanted to help chronicle this historic moment in climate litigation.
Montanans from around the state cheering on the youth in Helena. Photo by Robin Loznak.
The lay of the land
The sixteen youth plaintiffs argue that the state government, through its agencies, has promoted policies that support a destructive fossil fuel based energy system that not only harms Montana’s abundant natural resources, but has contributed to climate change, further damaging the environment and putting the livelihoods of future generations in peril.
Specifically, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which prevents the state from taking into account how its fossil fuel dependent energy economy contributes to climate change, violates their constitutional rights. The youth plaintiffs are represented by longtime Crag partner Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Eugene, Oregon.
A powerpoint exhibit at the Held v Montana trial showing the text of Section 9 of Montana’s state constitution. Photo by Dana Drugmand.
The youth’s legal claims are based on two provisions of the Montana constitution.
- Article 2 section 3 provides that all people have certain “inalienable rights,” including “the right to a clean and healthful environment,”
- Article 9 also states that “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
These provisions to Montana’s constitution were added in 1972 after years of copper mining companies destroying the state’s water, land and air for the sake of economic development. In some towns, the sun was completely blotted out by smoke and fumes of sulfur and arsenic.
The impacts of climate change
Several of the case’s plaintiffs have asthma that has been severely worsened by wildfire smoke inhalation. Others enjoy hunting and fishing but are facing depleted wildlife populations. Another works as a ski instructor, but has faced warmer winter temperatures and less yearly snowfall cutting the season short. Two of the youngest plaintiffs are active members of Indigenous tribes in Montana. Native youth have witnessed their cultural practices being severely threatened by changing climates in the state.
Youth plaintiff Sariel testifies in court at the Held v Montana trial. Photo by Robin Loznak.
Sariel Sandoval, a member of the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and Diné Tribes, testified as one of the sixteen youth plaintiffs. She stated, “The way we identify ourselves as Salish people, sqelixw, the root word translates to ‘flesh and land,’” – showing how her tribe is inseparably connected to the land and natural environment.
“Sandoval carries out many traditional practices in her life, from picking huckleberries to digging up medicinal roots. ‘It’s our way of life. It’s the way we’ve survived for time immemorial,’ she said. ‘We wouldn’t be here without the land. It feeds us, it shelters us. It takes great care of us, and we need to take great care of it, too.’”
“It’s our way of life. It’s the way we’ve survived for time immemorial…We wouldn’t be here without the land. It feeds us, it shelters us. It takes great care of us, and we need to take great care of it, too.”
– Sariel Sandoval, youth plaintiff in Held v Montana
Litigation as a tool for climate action
As a young person myself, it’s incredibly inspiring to see cases like Held actively amplify historically marginalized and underrepresented voices against all odds. Climate advocacy can feel daunting, particularly when there are few, if any environmental protection laws on the books. In a state like Montana, which is heavily reliant on its natural gas and oil resources for its energy economy, climate legislation of any kind is an uphill battle. Many youth, who will be most impacted by the decisions made now, aren’t even of voting age.
That’s why it’s so powerful to see litigation be used to hold governments accountable. With the historic climate decision, I hope that cases like Held will only increase in frequency, setting better and better legal precedents for environmental protection.
Fortunately, positive movement in two other youth-led climate cases makes me hopeful:
Kelsey Juliana and other youth plaintiffs of the federal Juliana v US case speak in front of the Supreme Court. Photo by Robin Laznak.
Juliana v US: Just days before the historic Montana trial began, Judge Ann Aiken ruled in the federal climate case Juliana v. US that the youth plaintiffs in that case can continue their case, an important decision after the lawsuit had been challenged repeatedly by White House administrations for the past 8 years. In Juliana v US, Crag represents the League of Women Voters of Oregon and the League of Women Voters of the U.S. Both organizations submitted amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs supporting youth plaintiffs seeking a declaration of the right to a stable climate and an order for the federal government to prepare a plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions.
Caption (left): Kelsey Juliana, Crag Executive Director Courtney Johnson, and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafourey at a press conference after oral arguments for Chernaik v Brown in front of the Oregon Supreme Court in 2019. Photo by Multnomah County Communications.
Navahine v Hawaii youth plaintiffs and supporters hold up signs after the court hearing in Honolulu Hawaii on Jan 26, 2023. Photo by Elyse Butler for Earthjustice.
Navahine vs. Hawai’i Department of Transportation: Trial is set to begin next summer for the 14 Hawaiian youth plaintiffs in their constitutional climate lawsuit. Over the course of their three-week trial in Honolulu, youth plaintiffs and their attorneys will present evidence to the court that the state Department of Transportation’s operation of a transportation system results in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions that violate their state constitutional rights and cause them significant harm.
Young people are asking courts across the nation to declare that a stable climate system is fundamental to the protection of their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment. I am looking forward to these other cases and hope Held will serve as examples for climate action across the country.
- Visit Our Children’s Trust’s website to learn more about Held v Montana
- Read updates on the Hawaii youth climate case here
- Read our web post here about Crag’s work representing the League of Women Voters in Juliana v US
- Learn about the first youth climate case in the nation, Chernaik, that Crag and Our Children’s Trust filed in 2011 in Oregon
2023 Social Media intern
Liv Lufkin was a 2023 Social Media Intern for Crag. She is a junior at American University studying environmental policy. As a Portland native, she enjoys exploring the state, hiking, and walking her dogs at Mt. Tabor.