The Montana climate lawsuit has emboldened young activists, including this one

Tia Hatton and other plaintiffs await a climate trial that pits them against the federal government, in a case that started before the landmark Montana ruling

Tia Hatton poses for a portrait near her home in Flagstaff, Ariz. on Friday. (Ash Ponders for The Washington Post)

During a quiet Monday morning at home in Flagstaff, Ariz., Tia Hatton took a break from work and checked social media. What she saw left her stunned and exhilarated.

“The Montana kids won!” she repeated with disbelief to her fiancé.

In a groundbreaking decision, a Montana court ruled that the state had violated the youths’ constitutional rights through its promotion of fossil fuels. Those youths waited three years for a decision in their case. But Hatton has waited much longer.

The 26-year-old was 18 when she joined Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit brought by youths against the federal government. The case, which was filed in 2015, alleged that the government “willfully ignored” the dangers of burning fossil fuels and in turn violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and failed to protect public trust resources.

The case drew international attention, even though — to that point — there was a history of youth climate cases failing in the courts. Three presidential administrations pushed back, and conservative analysts largely waved off the kids as tilting at legal wind mills. For a generation of activists, the case’s dismissal for lack of standing by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in 2020 prompted soul-searching, since they hoped to achieve a precedent for climate litigation comparable to Brown v. Board of Education, the monumental 1954 Supreme Court decision on civil rights.

Hatton first became concerned about climate change in high school after a ski season with record-low snow. The Juliana case thrust her into the national spotlight, but after repeated setbacks and a lull in progress, the lawsuit faded into the rearview mirror of her life.

But in June, a federal judge in Oregon ruled the Juliana lawsuit could proceed to trial. That — and the more recent win in the Montana case, initially filed on her birthday — has renewed Hatton’s hope that climate cases can have lasting impact, even with the many hurdles ahead.

Hatton grew up in Bend, Ore., surrounded by tall peaks of the Cascades, aware of nature and its fragility at an early age. In the third grade, she wrote to then-President George W. Bush asking him to protect the Amazon rainforest, and her friends would tease her when she encouraged them to recycle.

She also was a competitive skier, drawn to both the speed of the slopes and the crisp winter air of the mountains. But a dry winter messed up her senior year. Record-low snowfall disrupted practices and canceled races, though she still finished third in the combined overall at the state competition.

Her uncle told her climate change was to blame, a term she had heard but never explored. So, she started researching it on the internet.

That spring, she went with a friend to a church community room for an event held by a branch of the legal nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. She didn’t think of herself as a climate advocate, and the meeting was the first event of its kind she had ever attended.

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She and the other kids were shown a video about how youths in Eugene, Ore., had convinced the city to embrace climate recovery initiatives, by adding them to city ordinances. If the youths in Eugene could achieve this, she thought, why couldn’t the Bend kids do the same?

The summer after she graduated from high school, she received an email from an 18-year-old named Kelsey Juliana with Our Children’s Trust, who wanted to know if she’d be interested in joining a youth climate lawsuit against the federal government.

Hatton didn’t know what to think. She consulted her parents. Her mother was worried: What would this mean for Hatton’s future? Hatton had done everything right: sports star, valedictorian and a full ride to the University of Oregon.

Her mother’s reluctance gave Hatton pause, but she couldn’t shake the idea that her voice could make a difference. She had also been looking for a way to advocate for the climate, and an opportunity had arrived at her doorstep.

She told Juliana she was in.

‘No ordinary lawsuit’

Within months, her life started to transform. Her first big interview was in Eugene with MSNBC, and that was also where she first met some of the 20 other youth plaintiffs. After the interview, they jumped in the Willamette River with their clothes on, swam and got pizza.

It was a dynamic crew of plaintiffs. She was in awe (and a little intimidated) by Juliana, who had already taken part in a lawsuit against Oregon and walked from Nebraska to D.C. to raise awareness about climate change. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was also a celebrity in his own right, as a hip-hop artist and environmental activist. Levi Draheim, the youngest and an only child at the time, felt like a sibling to the older kids. And Hatton became friends with Alex Loznak and Jacob Lebel, who were close in age to her and had also grown up in Oregon.

Privately, she sometimes felt unworthy to be a part of the lawsuit, having been so unaware of climate change at an earlier age.

With the start of the school year in September 2015 came new responsibilities — and attention. She took an environmental law class that discussed the Juliana lawsuit. She spent late nights in the bottom floor of her dorm switching between homework and presentations about the case. She said “yes” to all the requests coming her way — and then, “I’ll figure it out.”

Yes to a Vogue photo shoot in New York City, where she got her hair and makeup done. Yes to an interview for CNN and a talk streamed on C-SPAN. Yes, because getting their story out felt important, and of course she would do anything to help the youths go to trial and hopefully win.

But the case quickly faced opposition from the Justice Department and the fossil fuel industry, which intervened in the case as defendants. She felt disillusioned in 2016 when she appeared in court for the first time, and saw government lawyers were sitting side by side with their counterparts with the fossil fuel industry.

But her feelings were lifted when Judge Ann Aiken handed down a ruling days after Donald Trump’s election affirming that people should have a right to a stable and safe climate system.

“This is no ordinary lawsuit,” the judge wrote in her decision allowing the case to proceed. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

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The summer before Hatton’s junior year, a man nudged her in a theater and asked whether she was one of the Juliana plaintiffs. The film credits were rolling at the conclusion of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Sequel.”

“Good luck,” he told her. “The world may depend on it.”

His words lingered with Hatton as she stepped into a hot night filled with smoke from wildfires around the state. The weight of her responsibility as a plaintiff felt heavier.

That summer, the case was also assigned a trial date — February 2018 — and she returned to school with preparation underway for the trial. Being deposed was nerve-racking, but it also felt good that the plaintiffs would finally have the chance to speak

The Trump administration, though, was challenging the case. The fossil fuel groups requested to be removed as defendants, with one citing their confidence in the administration to “rigorously defend its position.”

The legal challenges pushed the trial date back to Oct. 29, 2018, but the case survived the Justice Department’s appeal to the 9th Circuit.

As October arrived, Hatton knew there was no guarantee the trial would happen. But mere days before it was scheduled to begin, Judge Aiken canceled the trial following an order from the Supreme Court.

Hatton felt shock, and whiplash. They had come so close. How could they not have their day in court?

Trying to keep the cause alive, Hatton and the other plaintiffs rallied outside in the rain with hundreds of people — local groups, national advocacy organizations, schoolchildren — who had traveled there to watch the trial.

A trial date could still be announced. But in the aftermath of her disappointment, the senior did something she had put off year after year for the case. She studied abroad in Australia, taking classes on tropical reefs and rainforests. She visited the Great Barrier Reef.

She missed a hearing for the case in Portland, Ore. and the in-person updates from the attorneys. She missed being with her co-plaintiffs, but she was starting to let go of her college activism.

Hatton graduated in spring 2019 with a B.S. in environmental sciences and took a job from AmeriCorps to work with a land trust in Enterprise, Ore., a rural town of about 2,000.

She felt far from her community when the 9th Circuit handed down the major setback in January 2020, dismissing the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

The pandemic struck soon after, and Hatton returned home and took a job with the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. Progress on the case stalled, and she did not see the other plaintiffs for years.

Back in Bend, she also met her future fiancé, John Tenny. Their first date was at a food truck lot shortly after Joe Biden’s election, and she was abuzz about the win. But she was also weary, she said, of doing environmental work at higher levels of government.

The two moved to Arizona in the summer of 2022 after Tenny was admitted to a PhD program there. Hatton felt like she was leaving behind a big part of herself in Oregon, including a community of activists and the intense commitment she had given to the now-dormant Juliana case.

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In May, she started her current role as a sustainability coordinator for the city. She wants to focus on meeting top-down change from the bottom up, she said, though she continues to monitor the impacts of climate change. Each extreme weather event, she said, helps buttress the arguments central to Juliana.

But work is also now only one part of her life. She has her fiancé, her two rescue dogs, Millie and Chesler, and also her garden and plants that she hopes the dogs will not dig up.

For a time, she thought that the Juliana case was behind her, after years of feeling increasingly exhausted from telling the same story to no avail.

On June 1, 2023 — nearly eight years after the case was originally filed — Judge Aiken granted the plaintiffs’ motion for leave to amend their complaint, clearing the way for the case to go to trial. Later that month, Held v. Montana successfully went to trial, making it the first youth-led and constitutional climate case in the nation to do so. And the Montana youths didn’t just go to trial, they won, receiving a sweeping ruling in August against the state.

Hatton said she feels revitalized, and she recalls the days when she put the Juliana case above everything else. Bittersweet feelings aside, she’s thrilled for the Montana youths and hopeful that this year could also be a turning point for Juliana.

Legal experts say the case is still a long shot, and the decision in Montana, grounded in the state constitution, does not set a legal precedent that applies to Juliana. The Montana kids had particular ammunition to wage their battle — the language in their state’s constitution guaranteeing a clean environment. Many legal analysts say there are few parallels on the federal level.

Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer who served in the Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration, said the concerns raised in the case are not ones the courts should settle and that there is no constitutional basis for a right to a stable climate.

“I don’t think they have any chance of prevailing,” said Holmstead, now a partner at the law firm Bracewell LLP.

Hatton disputed this: “We’ve heard those arguments in court over and over again,” she said. “Montana shows that when it’s all laid out, we have a solid case. We’re carving out new legal territory, but that doesn’t mean the court shouldn’t uphold these fundamental rights that are being threatened by climate change.”

If the Juliana plaintiffs are called to court for a trial, it won’t be the same as when Hatton was younger, with sleepovers and the court only a bike ride away. She’ll have to figure out travel to Oregon, taking time off work and a plan for the dogs. But she’ll go, she doesn’t doubt that.

She remembers giving a presentation in college where she told other young people, “It seems to me that adults just get so cynical and lose their imagination.” She’s trying to hold onto her own, even as the wheels of jurisprudence turn slowly.

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