Alexandra Friedman is a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio
As we live through this year of increasingly frequent extreme weather all over the world, I’m taking a little bit of solace in the precedent set by the historic ruling in the Held v. Montana case. This was the highest profile case Fat Pencil has had the privilege of working on so you may have heard about it, but in case you missed it: June marked the first time a constitutional climate suit made it to court in the U.S., and last month, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs!
The Held v Montana lawsuit was first filed in 2020 against the state of Montana by sixteen youth plaintiffs, alleging that the state is violating their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system which contributes to the climate crisis. The plaintiffs ranged in age from six to twenty-two by the time of the trial and came from a variety of backgrounds from across the state of Montana. This was a bench trial, meaning that there was no jury: rather, a verdict was reached by the presiding judge.
The plaintiffs were represented by Our Children's Trust, “the world’s only non-profit public interest law firm dedicated exclusively to securing the legal rights of youth to a healthy atmosphere and safe climate, based on the best available science,” working closely with the Western Environmental Law Center’s Helena, MT office and McGarvey Law, based in Kalispell, MT.
Before pivoting to nonprofit work, one of the attorneys at Our Children’s Trust had spent some time with a large corporate law firm where they’d learned firsthand the value of hiring a team of designers to help raise the level of what gets presented in court. Knowing that Held v. Montana would be a historic, precedent-setting case that would be live-streamed and attract a lot of media attention, OCT decided to hire Fat Pencil well in advance, and also have one of us “embedded” with the legal team in Helena for the duration of the trial.
We spent four weeks preparing preliminary slide decks in the Fat Pencil office, and then I ended up being the designer who got to travel to Montana for the trial, with multiple team members back in Portland on hand to provide support as needed. I didn’t know quite what to expect but was very excited to be in the midst of such a momentous case, and to see its inner workings.
Although I’d met the majority of the legal team previously, mostly via Zoom, it was a new experience working directly with and alongside these dedicated individuals. I spent a large percentage of my two weeks in Helena in a meeting room in the hotel basement, refining slide decks to accompany the testimony of the plaintiffs and expert witnesses.
In most cases, once Fat Pencil delivers its work, we don’t have oversight of exhibits, and we don’t get to witness them being presented in court. In this case, we were able to stay involved to support final witness prep with last-minute changes as the legal team fine-tuned its plans for the following day’s testimony. The graphics were an intrinsic part of the evidence provided, with a consistent visual language that allowed our audience to focus on content.
The young plaintiffs shared a level of bravery and focus that was impossible not to be inspired by, and their stories of being affected by climate change were made even more powerful with the addition of personal photographs. It was also motivating to work directly with the expert witnesses, all at the tops of their respective fields. Each expert had slightly different needs, but our goal with everyone was to create a cohesive presentation that the judge could understand, as well as any other viewers in and out of the courtroom.
Sometimes we helped illustrate complex scientific concepts or processes; other times we helped trace historic events to make sense of developments. Many of these experts are used to presenting at conferences and even sometimes at trials so they have experience working with slide decks, but the legal team wanted presentations with a consistent look and feel, that tied into one another without retreading the same information.
One of our favorite graphics created for Held v. Montana was the chart shown above, which depicts the state’s fossil-fuel based energy system, shown as the CO2 associated with the economy in 2019. The original diagram was a Sankey chart, often used for showing the flow of resources. We love a Sankey chart — in fact, Joshua chose one as his favorite data visualization of 2022 — but they can be hard to interpret at a glance for those unused to reading them. We grounded this particular diagram by placing it on a map of Montana, and tried a few different options for the layout of the proportionally sized arrows before landing on one that had the benefit of reflecting not only the part of the state where most of the extraction occurs, but the direction the extraction comes from and the consumption goes (that is, into the atmosphere). It took a few rounds of brainstorming with the attorneys and the expert witness himself to come to our final iteration.
The hours were often long, but when people asked me how I felt about the sometimes grueling schedule, I could honestly say that it felt worthwhile to be working late into the night for such an important cause, and everyone else’s drive helped push me. It reminded me of some of my best experiences working in theatre: a group of passionate individuals working together on something they truly believe in.
The entire trial was live streamed, so I occasionally had it running while I worked on the next day’s demonstratives. I also got to sit in the courtroom a couple of times to watch the proceedings, seeing the attorneys and witnesses in action live, as well as our visuals on the multiple screens in the room. An indispensable partner in the visuals running smoothly in court and on live stream was Carisa Fisher of Fisher Court Reporting. She made sure all the demonstratives were queued up and ready to be shared with the larger audience outside the courtroom. I also saw firsthand the importance of a trusted legal team to collaboratively raise the level of each individual attorney’s work, and the invaluable organization performed behind the scenes by the tireless paralegals and legal assistants.
I have dozens of often hilarious, occasionally maddening, but always heartfelt memories from my time in Helena, and I feel deeply lucky to have been a part of this case. The Fat Pencil team got to do what it does best: help elucidate stories – personal, scientific, historical – through the power of visuals. It was exciting to read through Judge Seeley’s findings of fact and see references to concepts and events we illustrated, though most exciting was the verdict itself, and the precedent this sets for other courts throughout the nation and the world. As Our Children’s Trust gears up for other cases amidst a background of endless evidence of a changing climate, I can only hope that Judge Seeley’s decision leads other judges to consider the validity of these arguments.