May 10, 2023 | SCOTUS Concludes Oral Arguments for the Term
|Much of the time, a court case comes to an end because one side or the other wins through the persuasiveness of the arguments made. This result is often referred to as winning “on the merits.” When a court rules “on the merits,” a party prevails over another and substantive law may be made regarding a certain topic.|
However, sometimes, a court ends a case – not on the merits – but because the court simply does not have the ability to make a decision in this instance (though this does not mean that one party did not want the practical result of the end of the case). Often, this has to do with jurisdiction, or the power of a particular court in a particular place to hear this type of case at all. But other times, this has to do with what is known as justiciability. Justiciability, broadly, relates to the case itself and whether it is appropriate for it to be brought to court at the stage that it is at. But that description, really, is an oversimplification. In actuality, justiciability is better conceptualized as a bundle of various doctrines that all serve to limit when a case is and should be brought to court.
|Constitutional Standing||Important Cases|
|The first, and perhaps broadest, topic under the umbrella of justiciability is the issue of standing. Within the topic of standing, there are two general categories: Constitutional Standing and Prudential Standing.|
Constitutional Standing, as may be clear from the name, is a requirement of the Constitution. Congress cannot override its limits and could not pass a law allowing federal courts to hear cases that the restrictions of Constitutional Standing prevent them from hearing.
Specifically, this type of standing emanates from the wording in Article III, Section 2 which extends federal judicial power over “cases” and “controversies.” Often, in fact, this part of the Constitution is called the “Case or Controversy Clause.”
This has been understood to prohibit federal courts from issuing what are known as “advisory opinions.” In other words, unless there is some case to rule on, a court could not make an official statement on a theoretical outcome before any case actually came into being. More particularly, this requirement is composed of three distinct elements. For a court ruling, if issued, to not be an advisory opinion, it must adhere to all three.
First, there must be so-called “injury in fact.” This means that the party bringing the action must be suffering some concrete harm. This injury must be actual, not theoretical. Or, at least, it must be imminent. For example, in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), a case was brought by a group of (former) birdwatchers, alleging that a new policy was endangering birds in certain African countries. However, even though the birds themselves may be in danger, the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the suit. Not only were they personally not suffering, but they could not even show how further endangering the birds would be an imminent danger to them, as they had no immediate plans to return to these locations and engage in further birdwatching. Some of the Justices wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment that suggested that the result of the Court would have been different had the birdwatchers only bought a plane ticket to these locations before bringing the lawsuit.
The second element is causation. There must be a causal connection between the alleged injury suffered and the conduct complained of. For example, in Allen v. Wright (1984), a case was brought by parents of African American students in several states. They alleged that Internal Revenue Service (IRS) policies that were supposed to identify discriminating private schools – to prevent them from being able to receive tax deductible donations – were inadequate. These parents asserted that the IRS allowing certain schools to possibly discriminate and receive tax benefits made it easier for segregated schools to still exist, thereby making it more difficult for African American children to attend desegregated schools. However, the Court found this connection to be too attenuated. There was an insufficient causal connection between the alleged injury (the lesser availability of desegregated schools) and the conduct complained of (the IRS policies in question).
Finally, there must also be what is known as redressibility. This means that it must be likely that the alleged injury will be redressed, or remedied, by a favorable court decision. In other words, if the court agrees with the plaintiff’s argument, will that decision actually help him or her? For example, in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), the Court analyzed standing issues in a case where Massachusetts and several other states sued the Environmental Protection Agency over EPA policies that refused to regulate carbon emissions. The Court found there to be redressibility, and standing in general, here because rising sea levels resulting from increased greenhouse gases (a contention that the EPA did not dispute in their argument) could directly impact coastal Massachusetts. As such, a court ruling could redress Massachusetts’ potential injury.
|Allen v. Wright (1984)|
Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992)
Massachusetts v. EPA (2007)
|Prudential Standing||Important Cases|
|Even if there are no impediments in the case of a case from the standpoint of constitutional standing, there are other, judicially created, doctrines that may prevent a case from going forward. Collectively, these doctrines are known as prudential standing. It is worth noting, though, that because these are judicially created doctrines, they are traditionally more flexible and discretionary – as well as are able to be overrode by Congress.|
First, one may not assert the legal rights of another. There is no “third party standing,” as it is called. For example, in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), a father brought a lawsuit on behalf of his daughter who attended a public school where the pledge of allegiance was recited daily. This amounted to an establishment of religion, asserted the father, and was unconstitutional. However, the majority in Newdow did not rule on this issue. Instead, they held that the father did not have standing to bring this lawsuit on behalf of his daughter. There is a doctrine, known as the “next friend” doctrine, which allows certain people (parents or guardians, for example) to bring lawsuits on behalf of other less-able litigants (children or the mentally handicapped, for example). However, in this particular case, the father did not actually have custody of his daughter; and the Court held that this prevented the next friend doctrine from being applicable. Therefore, the father did not have prudential standing to bring the lawsuit.
The second prudential standing rule says that generalized grievances are best left to the representative branches of government. For example, in United States v. Richardson (1974), the Court rejected a lawsuit challenging certain CIA policies because those bringing the lawsuits attempted to do so simply because they were taxpayers, and asserted that this gave them a right to challenge the government in this fashion. However, the Court rejected this “taxpayer standing,” holding it to be too generalized of a grievance.
Finally, a plaintiff’s complaint should fall within the so-called “zone of interests” protected by whichever law is being invoked; if it does not do so, it lacks prudential standing. For example, in Association of Data Processing Service Organizations, Inc. v. Camp (1970), data processors challenged the government on a new rule concerning banks. There had been a law in place that stated that banks could not engage in activities that were not bank-related. But this new rule, by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, allowed banks to engage in data processing. Thus, the association sued – but the lower courts rejected the suit on the grounds that the initial statute in place was not meant to apply to data processing. In other words, a lawsuit by data processors under this bank statute was beyond the zone of interests the statute was designed to protect. However, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that, indeed, the association had standing because the statute could conceptually include any other industry that a bank was encroaching upon.
|Association of Data Processing Service Organizations, Inc. v. Camp (1970)|
United States v. Richardson (1974)
Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004)
|Another important justiciability issue is the doctrine of ripeness. Essentially, this is a matter of timing. When it is too early to bring a case – when a judicial challenge is not yet appropriate or when necessary events must still follow – that case is said to be unripe. For example, in Goldwater v. Carter (1979), Senator Goldwater and other legislators unhappy with President Carter’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China was held to not be ready for a judicial challenge. At the stage in which the suit was brought, there was no constitutional impasse. It was not that Congress had voted on the issue and then the President defied the law, some of these legislators were just displeased. This meant that, unless there was some more concrete issue to be resolved, the Court could not opine on the issue one was or the other (see also below, Political Question Doctrine).||Roe v. Wade (1973)|
DeFunis v. Odengaard (1974)
|Another important justiciability issue is the doctrine of mootness. Essentially, like ripeness, this is also a matter of timing. When the case or controversy underlying the court action is over – and time spent on issuing a court decision would be wasteful – the case is said to be moot. For example, in DeFunis v. Odengaard (1974), a student sued the University of Washington after it denied him admission to the law school. He alleged that the school’s affirmative action policies discriminated against those groups that did not benefit from their race or ethnicity. However, while the case was pending, and before it rose up to the Supreme Court, the student was admitted to the school (and unlike other Equal Protection school-related cases, the student brought the lawsuit alone, and not on behalf of others or applicants in general). By the time the Court was set to rule on the issue, he was months away from graduating. The case, therefore, was moot. It was no longer necessary. Whether or not the Court had ruled in the students favor ‘on the merits,’ he would have graduated from law school.|
There is, however, an exception to this rule, known as “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” This means that though a particular case may be moot by the time it reaches a court, if it is representative of other similar cases which would also ‘evade review’ by becoming moot before they can be ruled on, the court should decide the issue on the merits anyway. For example, in Roe v. Wade (1973) (see Abortion), the opponents argued that the Supreme Court should not issue a ruling on the abortion issue. “Roe” had given birth by the time the case rose up to the Court, and conceptually, her individual case was moot. However, the Court understood that abortion cases would, in general, be capable of repetition, yet evading review. Therefore, the Court rejected this argument and decided the case on the merits.
|Roe v. Wade (1973)|
DeFunis v. Odengaard (1974)
|Political Question Doctrine||Important Cases|
|This last justiciability issue stands for the proposition that the courts are not the proper place to decide political issues. This ‘political question doctrine’ is sometimes exercised in the following situations: (1) the issue is textually given to some other branch of government to resolve; (2) there is a lack of a judicially manageable standard with which to implement a ruling; (3) it is impossible for the Court to decide the issue without an initial policy determination from another source; (4) the Court cannot decide this issue without disrespecting another branch; (5) there is some unusual need for the Court to accept the decision of another branch; or (5) a Court ruling would embarrassingly conflict with another branch of the government. Though this is the list (taken from Baker v. Carr (1962)) usually given for applications of this doctrine, the Court is not limited to these situations. Nor does the Court always adhere to this doctrine: scholars and litigants often accuse the Court of using this doctrine out of convenience to rule on a case it wants to rule on and pass the buck, so to speak, when it feels that a ruling is imprudent.|
The most noted case on this doctrine is Baker v. Carr (1962). There, the Court was asked to rule on an issue of redistricting and the defendants in that case argued that drawing the lines of voting districts is a political question, not to be decided by the Courts. The majority, however, disagreed and held that the issue was justiciable. However, Justice Frankfurter and Justice Harlan, in their dissent, felt that the Court had misapplied the doctrine: “The Court’s authority – possessed of neither the purse nor the sword – ultimately rests on sustained public confidence in its moral sanction. Such feeling must be nourished by the Court’s complete detachment, in fact and in appearance, from political entanglements and by abstention from injecting itself into the clash of political forces in political settlements.”
|Baker v. Carr (1962)|
Nixon v. United States (1993)
Vieth v. Jubelirer (1962)