color photograph of a young person with curly purple hair just past their shoulders sitting on a courtroom bench. they're wearing a green dress and smile while looking to the right of the camera frame
HELENA, MONTANA - JUNE 12: Youth plaintiffs await the start of the nation's first youth climate change trial at Montana's First Judicial District Court on June 12, 2023, in Helena, Montana. (Photo by William Campbell/Getty Images)

Montana Judge Kathy Seeley ruled yesterday in favor of 16 youth plaintiffs in the case of Held v. Montana, a historic trial that took place over nine days in June. 

In her landmark ruling, Seeley agreed with plaintiffs that the state harmed residents as part of its environmental review process that supports the fossil fuel industry. She also ruled that Montana agencies will have to consider climate impacts before approving future fossil fuel permits. 

During the trial, expert witnesses for the plaintiffs demonstrated how emissions from Montana-based fossil fuel extraction, processing, and shipment contributed to global climate change and local environmental and ecological impacts. Plaintiffs’ lawyers also underscored how young people are particularly vulnerable to climate changes, extreme weather, and mental distress

Lawyers for the state argued that it was impossible to draw a connection between Montana’s actions and the harms that plaintiffs testified to, such as wildfires, shorter winter seasons, polluted waterways, pest infestation, and decreased mental and emotional well-being. 

Montana’s constitution is unique in that it includes a right to a clean and healthful environment. At the same time, the state has been remarkably friendly to fossil fuel interests.  

Until this ruling, the Montana Environmental Policy Act included a limitation that prevented evaluation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in service of a quick permit approvals process and industry profitability. But Judge Seeley found that the state environmental review limitation does not serve a “compelling interest” and that Montana’s emissions could, in fact, be traced to the law’s limitation. 

“Montana’s GHG contributions are … nationally and globally significant,” Seeley wrote in her ruling. “Montana’s GHG emissions cause and contribute to climate change and Plaintiffs’ injuries.” 

The ruling does not outline any specific measures of redress for the plaintiffs. However, it does ensure that any future fossil fuel permitting will have to abide by the ruling and consider climate impacts. The state has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. 

The case, brought in 2020 by 16 young Montanas then ranging in age from 2 to 18, was the first in U.S. history to make it to trial. However, Held v. Montana was just one of many youth-led constitutional climate cases to challenge government support of industries and actions that harm and destabilize the environment. Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that argued for Montana youth plaintiffs, filed a similar case on behalf of young residents of Hawai‘i that is scheduled for trial in June 2024. In June 2023, a federal judge ruled that Juliana v. United States—a case the Department of Justice spent years treating as a nuisance—is also deserving of its day in court. Juliana asserts the federal government has violated youths’ constitutional right to life, liberty, and property.

“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director with Our Children’s Trust, in a press release. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.