Young people suing the state of Montana over the effects of climate change are expected to go to trial next June, becoming the first youth climate activists in the U.S. to argue their case in court.

Attorneys with Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based public-interest law firm that represents a number of kid-centered climate cases in the U.S., said Tuesday the case will go to trial June 12 at the 1st Judicial District Court in Helena.

The trial had initially been scheduled for early February, but Nate Bellinger, co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs, said trial preparations have been ongoing for months.

“This trial will be an historic opportunity for these 16 young Montanans, and their experts, to testify in open court about how the state of Montana’s historic and ongoing promotion of fossil fuels is causing plaintiffs grave injuries, and the urgent need for judicial intervention,” said Bellinger, senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust.

The 16 challengers in Held v. State of Montana filed suit in March 2020, calling on the courts to declare the state’s energy policies unconstitutional. The lawsuit charges that by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system, the state is degrading public trust resources, including rivers, lakes, fish and wildlife. It also argues that the state is violating the constitutional rights of the youth plaintiffs, such as the right to a clean and healthy environment.

A spokesman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) called Our Children’s Trust a “special interest group that is exploiting well-intentioned kids—including a 4-year old and an 8-year old—to achieve its goal of shutting down responsible energy development in Montana.”

Communications director Kyler Nerison added that “unable to implement their policies through our normal processes of representative government, these out-of-state climate activists are trying to use Montana’s liberal courts to impose their authoritarian climate agenda on us.”

The trial date comes as a judge in Virginia last month rejected a similar lawsuit claiming that the state’s permitting of fossil fuels violates the rights of a group of young people by worsening the effects of climate change.

That case did not make it to trial. Richmond Circuit Court Judge Clarence Jenkins Jr. ruled that under the sovereign immunity doctrine the Virginia Legislature cannot be sued for violating citizens’ rights (Climatewire, Sept. 19).

Bellinger, who was lead counsel in the case, told Jenkins that the young people were “relying on the judiciary to protect their fundamental rights.” He said that the youth likely would appeal the ruling to Virginia’s Court of Appeals.

In addition to the Montana case and the Virginia lawsuit, Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Our Children’s Trust represents or supports youth cases in Utah and Hawaii.

It also represents young people in a case against the federal government, Juliana v. United States, which was filed in 2015.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2021 declined to reconsider Juliana after a three-judge panel of the circuit dismissed it in 2020—finding that the case raised questions for the “political branches” of government rather than the courts.

Knudsen, the Montana attorney general, was one of 17 Republican attorneys general who asked to be involved in the landmark kids’ climate case as the young people entered settlement talks with the Biden administration in June 2021 (Greenwire, June 9, 2021).

The red states expressed alarm that President Joe Biden’s Justice Department could reach a settlement with the youths that would harm the fossil fuel industry and raise energy prices. The settlement talks ended in November without a resolution.

The Juliana challengers are now awaiting a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon on whether a revised lawsuit can proceed (Climatewire, Dec. 1, 2021).

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.