An attorney for 16 young plaintiffs urged a judge Tuesday to strike down a Montana law as unconstitutional that bars state agencies from considering environmental impacts when it weighs the permits that allow the release of greenhouse gases.
Attorney Nate Bellinger made the request in his closing argument at the end of the seven-day trial. The plaintiffs say state officials are violating their right to a clean and healthy environment, part of the Montana Constitution, by allowing companies to build power plants and expand mines in coal, and other things.
“Like other major constitutional cases in the past, the state of Montana comes before this court because of a widespread systemic rights violation,” Bellinger said.
During the first-of-its-kind trial, the plaintiffs testified how the increase in heat, smoke from wildfires and drought affect their activities and mental health. Native Americans say climate change will affect their ceremonies and traditional food sources, and climate experts warn the window to address environmental damage is closing fast.
Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said at the state shutdown Tuesday that the issue of climate change is much bigger than Montana can address on its own.
He said the plaintiffs’ calls for the state to take the lead in addressing climate change are a social statement, not a legal argument. The case filed by the young plaintiffs is a “week-long airing of political grievances that belongs to the Legislature, not a court of law,” he said.
“The issue at the core of this case is a fundamental principle of separation of powers,” Russell said. “The power of the state ultimately resides with the people of Montana and the people of Montana are most directly represented by their elected representatives in the Montana Legislature.”
However, courts may be asked to determine whether laws are constitutional. And many of the plaintiffs are not old enough to vote, the lawsuit argues.
A decision from State District Judge Kathy Seeley is expected after the parties file their proposed findings in the case, which is due in early July.
One of the plaintiffs, Lander Busse, said he was hopeful the judge would rule in their favor, adding that he hoped the plaintiffs’ case would spark “a trickle of other litigation and activism in the country.”
If Seeley sides with the plaintiffs and declares the state law unconstitutional, Montana’s Republican-led branches of government will respond. Representatives of the administration of Governor Greg Gianforte showed during the trial that there is no basis under state law to reject permits for projects, even if their impact on the climate is disclosed.
That means a verdict for the plaintiffs could increase political pressure on state officials, but it would have no immediate consequences, said James Huffman, a former professor and dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School. now living in Montana.
“Montana Republicans seem set in their ways, and I don’t think the district court decision is going to change the way they think about these issues,” Huffman said.
A ruling against the state could also establish a new legal precedent and add to the small number of rulings that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change. However, only a few states – including Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts – have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.
Emily Flower, spokeswoman for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, described the trial as a “publicity stunt by an out-of-state organization that took advantage of well-meaning children.”
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys for Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon environmental group that has filed similar lawsuits in every state since 2011 and has raised more than $20 million in contributions. None of the previous cases made it to trial.
“Anyone who has any questions about the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ claims did not listen to last week’s trial,” Julia Olson, the group’s founder, said in response to Flower’s statement. He noted that the evidence presented by the youth and the scientists for the plaintiffs was largely uncontested by state attorneys.
“The trial showed that the facts were not in dispute,” Olson said.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.
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