Federal Constitutional Standing Requirements Under Article III
May 5, 2020
Article III of the U.S. Constitution establishes the Supreme Court and gives Congress the authority to create additional courts. It also gives the Judicial Branch of the federal government authority over certain types of cases. The Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the first bills passed during the first session of Congress, created the federal judicial system, which today consists of a nationwide network of district courts and circuit courts of appeals.
Federal law requires anyone seeking to file a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court to establish that the federal judiciary may exercise jurisdiction over the subject matter of the dispute, and over the persons or entities involved.
Over the last century, the Supreme Court has also established a system for determining when a person has standing to bring a claim in federal court. While the rules regarding standing do not appear in the Constitution, the Supreme Court based them on the authority granted by Article III of the Constitution and federal statutes.
What is Standing?
“Standing” is the legal right for a particular person to bring a claim in court. A plaintiff must establish that they meet the legal criteria for standing. This generally involves demonstrating an injury and a direct connection to the defendant. If, for example, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident with the defendant, and the plaintiff alleges that the defendant was responsible for the accident, they most likely have standing to sue. Federal courts have developed their own rules for lawsuits that involve questions of federal or constitutional law.
The Case or Controversy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, located in Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1, does not mention the word “standing.” Despite this, it is the basis for many important court decisions addressing standing.
One of the first Supreme Court decisions to address standing in this manner was Fairchild v. Hughes, 258 U.S. 126 (1922). The plaintiff in that case sought to challenge the District of Columbia’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited the government from denying anyone the right to vote based on their gender. At the time that plaintiff sued, the amendment had not yet been ratified. The court ruled unanimously against the plaintiff, holding that individuals did not have a general right to sue to invalidate a statute or other legislative act. Since the plaintiff’s ultimate goal was to challenge the Nineteenth Amendment itself, his lawsuit was not a “case” that a federal court could hear.
In Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923), the Supreme Court ruled against two plaintiffs who sought to challenge certain expenditures by the federal government. The plaintiffs alleged that the Tenth Amendment barred the expenditures in question, but they did not allege that the expenditures would cause them any specific or individualized harm. In ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing, the court held that it had “no power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional.” Id. at 448. In order to make such a ruling, a plaintiff would need to show that they have “sustained or [are] immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury” from the challenged law. Id.
Three Requirements for Article III Standing
The rules for Article III standing took their current form in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992). The case involved a challenge by an environmental organization to federal regulations issued under the Endangered Species Act. In ruling against the plaintiff, the Supreme Court identified a three-part test for establishing standing in federal court. A plaintiff has the burden of proving each element of the test.
1. Injury in Fact
A plaintiff must have suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that meets two additional criteria: (1) it is “concrete and particularized”; and (2) it is “actual or imminent,” as opposed to “conjectural or hypothetical.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560. It does not need to be an economic injury, but it needs to be something that has directly affected the plaintiff.
The plaintiff’s injury must be “fairly traceable” to the conduct that is the subject of the lawsuit. Id. It cannot have resulted from actions by someone who is not a party to the lawsuit.
3. Likelihood of Redress
A decision in the plaintiff’s favor must be likely to provide an adequate remedy for the plaintiff’s injuries. The court specified that “redress by a favorable decision” must be “likely,” rather than “merely speculative.” Id. at 561.
Other Standing Requirements
In addition to federal constitutional standing requirements, described above, many statutes or claims have their own additional standing requirements, or doctrines applying the constitutional standing requirements specific to the claim or statute.
For example, under the federal antitrust laws, plaintiffs must satisfy federal antitrust standing, which, most prominently, includes antitrust injury, which you can read about on our antitrust website.
The lesson is that if you are defending or about to bring a federal lawsuit, you should check constitutional and any other standing requirements.