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What is legal “standing”?

Posted by on April 19, 2016 in Recent Cases - 1 Comment
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day of arguments in the immigration case United States v. Texas. April 18, 2016. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day of arguments in United States v. Texas. April 18, 2016. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

In order to bring a suit to court, a person, or plaintiff, must demonstrate that they have been harmed, or will be harmed, and therefore, the court must take corrective action.  Standing, or locus standi, limits lawsuits to those individuals who have suffered actual harm.  In other words, a court will not hear a case brought by a person who simply believes a law is unfair, or if he or she believes that a law has harmed others.  A plaintiff must demonstrate a risk to their own legal interests.  Did they lose money?  Did they suffer an injury?  Were their constitutional rights violated?  Insufficient standing is the demise of many litigants before the Supreme Court.  As stated in Article III of the Constitution, the Court resolves cases or controversies.  They do not provide legal advice.  While the requirement that plaintiffs must demonstrate direct harm may seem straightforward, adequate legal standing is sometimes quite debatable.  Yesterday, the Court heard oral arguments in United States v Texas.  In this case, Texas claimed that President Obama’s executive action on immigration policy is causing real harm to their state.  President Obama announced in November of 2014 that he would defer deportation of undocumented immigrants who had children who were U.S. citizens.  United States District Court, and then the Court of Appeals, held that many states, including Texas were harmed by the executive actions because they would incur additional costs for subsidizing drivers licenses for a greater number of undocumented immigrants.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this case.  Much of the 90 minutes were spent arguing whether or not Texas had standing to bring this case.  Several justices seemed unconvinced that Texas actually incurred any direct damages.  The cost of issuing additional drivers licenses was self-inflicted, since Texas could stop subsidizing them at any time.  Nonetheless, the overall responsibilities of a state government can increase or decrease because of federal action.  It is clear that states cannot sue the federal government because they disagree with a policy.  But how much damage do they need to show and how direct must it be?  In 2006, Massachusetts successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to recognize carbon dioxide emissions.  Greenhouse gases, it argued, contribute to climate change and put its state at added risk. In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that Massachusetts did have legal standing and that the EPA must recognize carbon dioxide as a pollutant and take steps to reduce such emissions.  When Chief Justice Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli about the similarities between United States v Texas and Massachusetts v Environmental Protection Agency, Verrilli answered that Massachusetts could not escape harm, while Texas had a choice.  It will be interesting to see if this case is decided on the merits or if it is turned back because Texas lacks standing.  The eight justices will likely decide by June.

What do you think?

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