Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The Montana Supreme Court has rejected a last-minute attempt by the State Attorney General’s Office to stop a lawsuit waged by a group of youth plaintiffs who charge the state has failed to preserve a “clean and healthful” environment for future generations, as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution.

On Monday, the Montana Attorney General’s Office submitted a brief to the state’s highest court, asking for a writ of supervisory control, a rare measure in which the appellate court takes control of the current case. Such a move would have likely postponed, if not indefinitely delayed, a trial scheduled to start on June 12 in Lewis and Clark County District Court before judge Kathy Seeley.

The Attorney General’s Office argued that recent changes to state law rendered the case moot by two specific measures that have been since signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, and codified into law.

The Montana Supreme Court decided by a 6-to-1 vote to reject the appeal by the Montana Attorney General’s Office saying that it had not demonstrated how the recently passed laws had changed the state’s constitutional guarantee, and pointing out that the state could still use the appeals process during and after the conclusion of the trial.

Only Associate Justice Jim Rice did not sign the four-page ruling, saying simply that he “would order a response and postpone the trial.”

Meanwhile, the other six justices said Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen “has provided no reason why the district court’s ruling cannot be reviewed on appeal, if necessary.”

“Moreover, trial, with preparation literally years in the making, is set to commence less than a week from now,” the high court pointed out.

Knudsen’s office had argued that during the legislative session, which concluded roughly a month ago, the Republican supermajority in both chambers had repealed the state’s energy policy. It also passed the “climate change exception” to the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

Meant as response to ongoing litigation in Yellowstone County concerning a proposed and partially built natural gas fired power plant by NorthWestern Energy, House Bill 971 specifically outlawed any consideration of greenhouse gases by state authorities unless specifically ordered by an act of Congress.

Attorneys for the State of Montana argued that those changes to Montana’s law effectively make the trial moot. However, the Supreme Court said the Attorney General had failed to prove the claims made by youth had been rendered obsolete because of the lawmakers’ actions.

“The state … has not demonstrated that HB 971’s amendments alter the allegations the plaintiffs make in the complaint,” the order said. “Since the complaint was filed, the theory of this claim has been that prohibiting consideration of the impacts of climate change in environmental review violates the Montana Constitution. The state does not explain how HB 971 changes that issue for trial.”

The Montana Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.