It's a living legal community making laws accessible and interactive. Click Here to get Started »
The legally protectible stake or interest that an individual has in a dispute that entitles him to bring the controversy before the court to obtain judicial relief.
Standing, sometimes referred to as standing to sue, is the name of the federal law doctrine that focuses on whether a prospective plaintiff can show that some personal legal interest has been invaded by the defendant. It is not enough that a person is merely interested as a member of the general public in the resolution of the dispute. The person must have a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy.
The standing doctrine is derived from the U.S. Constitution's Article III provision that federal courts have the power to hear "cases" arising under federal law and "controversies" involving certain types of parties. In the most fundamental application of the philosophy of judicial restraint, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this language to forbid the rendering of Advisory Opinions.
Once a federal court determines that a real case or controversy exists, it must then ascertain whether the parties to the litigation have standing. The Supreme Court has developed an elaborate body of principles defining the nature and scope of standing. Basically, a plaintiff must have suffered some direct or substantial injury or be likely to suffer such an injury if a particular wrong is not redressed. A defendant must be the party responsible for perpetrating the alleged legal wrong.
Most standing issues arise over the enforcement of an allegedly unconstitutional statute, ordinance, or policy. One may challenge a law or policy on constitutional grounds if he can show that enforcement of the law or implementation of the policy infringes on an individual constitutional right, such as freedom of speech. For example, in tinker v. des moines independent community school district 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733, 21 L. Ed. 2d 731 (1969), high school officials in Des Moines, Iowa, had suspended students for wearing black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. There was no question that the parents of the students had standing to challenge the restrictions on the wearing of armbands. Mere ideological opposition to a particular government policy, such as the Vietnam War, however, is not sufficient grounds to challenge that policy in court.
A significant economic injury or burden is sufficient to provide standing to sue, but in most situations a taxpayer does not have standing to challenge policies or programs that she is forced to support. In Frothingham v. Mellon, 288 F. 252 (C.A.D.C. 1923), the Supreme Court denied a federal taxpayer the right to challenge a federal program that she claimed violated the Tenth Amendment, which reserves certain powers to the states. The Court said that a party must show some "direct injury as the result of the statute's enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way common with people generally."
Although the Supreme Court made a narrow exception to this prohibition on taxpayer suits in Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 88 S. Ct. 1942, 20 L. Ed. 2d 947 (1968), granting standing to a taxpayer to challenge federal spending that would benefit parochial schools, the Court has never gone beyond that. In fact, there is some doubt as to the vitality of the Flast decision. In 1974 the Court denied standing to a taxpayer who sought to challenge Congress's exempting the Central Intelligence Agency from the constitutional requirement under Article I, Section 9, Clause 7, that government expenditures be publicly reported (United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166, 94 S. Ct. 2940, 41 L. Ed. 2d 678). Since Richardson the Court has continued to maintain the traditional barrier against taxpayer lawsuits.
The issue of standing has played a crucial role in class action lawsuits, especially those filed by environmental groups. In Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 92 S. Ct. 1361, 31 L. Ed. 2d 636 (1972), the Court denied standing to an environmental group that was challenging a decision by the secretary of the interior. The Court ruled that the Sierra Club had not demonstrated that its members would be substantially adversely affected by the secretary's decision. Later environmental class actions have overcome the standing hurdle by including specific harms that group members would suffer, thus avoiding the Court's rule against generalized concerns.
The issue of standing is more than a technical aspect of the judicial process. A grant or denial of standing determines who may challenge government policies and what types of policies may be challenged. Those who believe that the federal courts should not increase their power generally believe standing should be used to limit access to the courts by persons or groups seeking to change public policy. They believe the legislative branch should deal with these types of issues. Opponents of a strict standing test complain that plaintiffs never get a chance to prove their case in court. They believe that justice should not be denied by the application of judicially created doctrines such as standing.