HELENA, Mont. — An attorney for 16 young plaintiffs urged a judge Tuesday to strike down as unconstitutional a Montana law that prohibits state agencies from considering the environmental effects when it weighs permits allowing the release of greenhouse gases.
Attorney Nate Bellinger made the plea in his closing argument at the end of a seven-day trial. The plaintiffs claim that state officials have violated the Montana Constitution’s right to clean air and a healthy environment by permitting companies to expand coal mines and build power plants.
“Like other monumental constitutional cases before, the state of Montana comes before this court because of a pervasive systemic infringement of rights,” Bellinger said.
During the trial plaintiffs spoke about their mental and physical health and how heat and smoke from wildfires affect them. Native Americans said climate change affects their ceremonies and traditional food sources, and climate experts warned the window to address the environmental damage is rapidly closing.
Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said Tuesday that the climate change issue is much larger than Montana can address on its own and that the Legislature had the right to enact the law that limits greenhouse gas reviews
He said that the calls by plaintiffs to take the lead in addressing climate change was a social statement, not a legal argument.
The ruling of state District Judge Kathy Seeley will be expected after both parties have submitted their findings, due early in July.
If Seeley side with the plaintiffs, and declares that the Montana state law is unconstitutional it will be up to Republican-led branches of the Montana government. Representatives of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration stated during the trial there was no legal basis for rejecting projects even when their climate impact is disclosed.
A ruling in favor of plaintiffs would increase pressure on the state, but not immediately, according to James Huffman. He is a retired professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and now lives in Montana.
“Republicans in Montana seem pretty fixed in their ways, and I don’t think a decision by this district court is going to change the way that they think about these issues,” Huffman said
A decision against the state also could establish new legal precedent and add to the small number of rulings that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change. Only a few states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts, have similar protections for the environment in their constitutions.
Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, described the trial as a “publicity stunt staged by an out-of-state organization that is exploiting well-intentioned children.”
The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys for Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon environmental group that has filed similar lawsuits in every state since 2011 and raised more than $20 million in contributions. The previous cases never reached trial.
“Whoever has doubts about the validity of our plaintiffs claims didn’t listen at the trial last week,” Julia Olson said, in response to Flower’s statement. The state attorneys did not contest the majority of the evidence that was presented by both the scientists and the youths for plaintiffs.
“The trial has shown the facts are irrefutable,” Olson said.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.
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