The United Nations has Judge Seeley’s back

September 11, 2023 4:03 am

Photo illustration via Madartzgraphics (Pixabay | Public domain)

While the State of Montana refuses to recognize the severity of the effects of the climate crisis on children—choosing, instead, to insult Judge Kathy Seeley and demean her Aug. 14, landmark decision in the Held case–the United Nations Report on the rights of children and climate change, released Aug. 22, 2023, fully supports her decision.

The UN Report is too detailed to discuss at length here, but it begins by observing that: “The extent and magnitude of the triple planetary crisis, comprising the climate emergency, the collapse of biodiversity and pervasive pollution, is an urgent and systemic threat to children’s rights globally.”

The report then proceeds to note that:

“A clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is both a human right itself and necessary for the full enjoyment of a broad range of children’s rights. Conversely, environmental degradation, including the consequences of the climate crisis, adversely affects the enjoyment of these rights …. The exercise by children of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, to information and education, to participate and be heard and to effective remedies can result in more rights-compliant, and therefore more ambitious and effective, environmental policies. In this way, children’s rights and environmental protection form a virtuous circle.”

The report also states that: 

The right to life is threatened by environmental degradation, including climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, . . .  States should take positive measures to ensure that children are protected from foreseeable premature or unnatural death and threats to their lives that may be caused by acts and omissions, as well as the activities of business actors, and enjoy their right to life with dignity. Such measures include the adoption and effective implementation of environmental standards, for example, those related to air and water quality, food safety, lead exposure and greenhouse gas emissions, and all other adequate and necessary environmental measures that are protective of children’s right to life.

The report forcefully argues for the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and for the rapid and effective reduction of greenhouse gases through the use of proven technologies.

Each of these points echoes Seeley’s decision.  

But most importantly, each of these recommendations and observations is—and has been for the last 51 years—covered in Montana’s Constitution.

Article II, section 3 guarantees to each Montanan:

“The right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring possessing and protection property, and seeking their safety, health, and happiness in all lawful ways.”

Article IX, Section One states:

(1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.

(2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty.

(3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.

Article II, Section 4 protects the inviolable right to human dignity.

Article II, Section 15 guarantees that persons under 18 shall enjoy the same Article II rights as adults.

And, Article II, Section 16 guarantees the right of access to the courts.

These are fundamental rights, not suggestions or aspirational goals.  

Indeed, Article IX, Section 1, imposes mandatory, constitutional duties on, among others, our state government, each public official, and the legislature.  

Yet, how does the state respond? 

Well, this last session of the legislature, controlled by the Republican supermajority/Freedom Caucus, passed and the Governor signed into law, more two dozen bills which willfully and pointedly trashed the environment in every way imaginable.  No doubt many of these laws will be challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional.

These challenges aside, at least Seeley is looking to protect the rights of “this and future generations” of Montana youth.

And, now, she’s got the United Nations to back her up.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

James C. Nelson
James C. Nelson

James C. Nelson is a retired lawyer and former Montana Supreme Court Justice. He lives in Helena.