Are Right and Left Changing Where They Stand on Standing?

Traditionally, conservative scholars and judges have advocated narrow views of constitutional “standing”: the level of “interest” litigants must have at stake in the outcome of a case in order to give them a legal right to sue. For their part, liberals have usually promoted the opposite view: constitutional rights should not be denied based on these sorts of technicalities. Modern standing doctrine requires that litigants must prove that they have 1) suffered some sort of past or imminent material injury, 2) the injury was caused by the law, and 3) it can be redressed by a judicial decision. Generally speaking, Liberals have argued for a broad interpretation of all three requirements, while conservatives tended to assert that all three should be interpreted narrowly.

This ideological division has been turned on its head in the current gay marriage and health care litigation. In the former, liberal litigants and interest groups have argued that the proponents of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 lack standing to appeal the district court ruling striking it down. For their part, conservatives have claimed that they do have “standing,” applying a broad definition of what counts as “material injury.” In the health care case, district judge Henry Hudson (a George W. Bush appointee) has ruled that the state of Virginia has standing to challenge the Obama bill’s “individual mandate” even though the mandate actually applies only to individuals and not state government. The liberal Obama administration and many liberal commentators such as Jack Balkin decried this ruling and argued that Virginia doesn’t have standing. This, despite the fact that Virginia’s standing could be defended under the broad interpretation of state government standing approved by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA, the global warming case (much to the delight of most liberals).

Does this mean that liberals and conservatives are about to switch sides on standing? Possibly. But it is more likely that views on standing will no longer closely track ideological divisions. Nothing about conservative ideology as such necessarily requires narrow standing rules, and nothing about liberal ideology necessarily requires broad ones. The ideological split over the issue dates back to the 1970s and 80s, when broad theories of standing mostly favored liberal litigants (especially environmentalists) challenging policies adopted by Republican-controlled administrative agencies. At that time, many believed that Republicans had a lock on the presidency, and that conservatives had little to gain and much to lose from strategic constitutional litigation.

Neither assumption is valid today. Democrats are once again competitive in presidential politics. And the rise of conservative and libertarian public interest law groups combined with a more conservative Supreme Court, ensure that the right can play offense as well as defense in constitutional litigation. For these reasons, narrow standing rules no longer consistently tilt the playing field in favor of conservatives. But neither do they uniformly advance liberal interests. Over time, therefore, neither group is likely to advance a consistent position on the issue. Standing arguments will increasingly become a tactical gambit used whenever convenient, rather than a matter of principle.

None of this says much about the normative question of whether broad or narrow standing rules are best. At least some people care about this issue for reasons that go beyond seeking tactical advantage in specific cases. Co-blogger Jonathan Adler, for example, is a principled advocate of narrow standing rules. I generally hold the opposite view, and will briefly outline my reasons in a follow-up post.