Monday, August 14, 2023

Don't trifle with judges, Montana edition

My direct and indirect experience with trial court judges is that they are mini-dictators/monarchs in their courtrooms, and that's probably a good thing. Unlike the vast majority of real dictators, they can be benevolent, but even if that's not their default personality, you still want someone who will occasionally stand up against powerful individuals, organizations, and the government itself. Trifle with them and find out what happens.

So we have a Montana trial court issuing today an opinion in favor of youth plaintiffs, saying Montana's law forbidding consideration of climate change impacts violates Montana's constitution requiring environmental protection. The kicker is that the state defendant spent all of one day in court presenting its side, after months of evidentiary proceedings.

I'm sad to say I don't know Montana law specifically and look forward to reviews by state experts. I am reading the opinion though and thought I'd throw out a few thoughts:

*fundamentally this is about resolving a legal conflict between a state statute saying 'ignore climate change' and the state constitution saying the state shall "maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." Its direct relevance to other states requires a similar conflict. Indirectly, from a legal realism perspective, it might have more effect on nudging judges to take climate change seriously.

*lots of evidentiary battles in pretrial activity followed by only one day of testimony by the state in defense (plaintiffs had to have some serious financial resources to do this, btw). I'd love to be a fly on the wall at the state to understand the internal decision-making on that tactic. It feels like a political decision that's pretty close to a forfeit, and I doubt it went over well with the judge.

*the factual findings may be more important than they first appear, basically reiterating well-known facts about climate change and the harm it has on the environment and people. That might sound like non-news, but barring reversal on appeal - and appeals very rarely reverse factual findings - those findings become the "law of the case" requiring Montana for purposes of the case to acknowledge climate change is real, anthropogenic, and harmful.

*the concept of collateral estoppel/issue preclusion might also apply, and this is where a Montana legal expert would be helpful. That legal principle says once an issue has been litigated, it's done, and the party that lost can't try it again in a different proceeding. In other words, Montana could be stopped from denying climate reality not just in this case but in any other case (barring new evidence, which probably would have to overcome a significant legal hurdle to reopen the issue).

*I'm curious how easy it is to amend the Montana constitution. I expect we'll find out.

*the procedural stuff at the end saying the statute is subject to strict scrutiny etc. is the hardest to assess, but it's key to whether the case becomes a footnote or whether it has actual legal teeth in Montana.

Some other stuff:

*Svante is in the findings! Paragraph 74 - gotta love that, helping laying down the marker that CO2's role is well-understood and only became politicized by denialists, when the truth became inconvenient. Keeling Curve is there as well.

*because the plaintiffs claimed mental health damage from climate change's impacts, Montana demanded the right to conduct adversarial mental health examinations of these under-age minors (page 5). The judge told the state to take a hike. In circumstances where you're trying to assess damages, an examination is reasonable, but here it really isn't. The state is acting like a jerk, and I doubt it helped with the judge.

*findings about the under-age plaintiffs make them very appealing, what lawyers call "good facts" that hopefully make the court want to find ways to support your side. If they're willing and capable, I think these kids could be good media emissaries.

*twice the state tried to get Montana's state Supreme Court take the case away from the trial court, and the Supreme Court refused. Something else that is likely to have annoyed the judge.

*Glacier National Park, unsurprisingly, played a major role in the opinion. Glad to see it, and I did a volunteer vacation for glacier monitoring and blogged about it, way back when.

*plaintiffs are getting attorney fees and costs, which sounds administrative but is going to be a lot of money and is vital to the future success of cases like this. I suppose that could be reversed though if the case gets reversed on appeal.