Sixteen young plaintiffs in Montana earlier this week successfully sued to overturn a state law they said violated their constitutional rights to a healthy environment.
They were represented by attorneys with Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based nonprofit that has helped young people file similar lawsuits in all 50 states, including a federal case in Oregon.
During an interview with OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” Our Children’s Trust attorney Mat dos Santos said the Montana decision was state-specific, so it doesn’t have a direct impact on other cases. Still, dos Santos said the decision was a major victory, and other courts will likely take it into account.
“We’re talking about a watershed moment for society at large,” dos Santos said. “And I think that courts will look at it as persuasive authority.”
Juliana v. United States stalled in 2020 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed the case, but attorneys for the young plaintiffs amended their legal complaint. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that the lawsuit could proceed to trial under the amended complaint. A trial date has not been scheduled yet.
The 21 plaintiffs in the Oregon case, who were between the ages of 8 and 18 when the case was filed in 2015, contend the federal government has for decades promoted fossil fuels, therefore playing a key role in climate change. They are asking the government to drastically reduce emissions.
In the Montana case, the 16 plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 22 sued over a law that said the state could not take greenhouse gas emissions into account when considering mining or energy projects. They said the law went against Montana’s constitution, which has an amendment codifying the right to a clean and healthful environment.
Dos Santos said many state governments involved in similar climate lawsuits have said the issue is too big for courts, and that it should instead be considered by Congress or the president.
“We need courts to participate in this process just as much as we need the legislative and the executive branch[es],” dos Santos said. “And when courts sort of hand their power over to the legislature or the executive branch, I think that’s a really big disservice to our democracy.”