Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife

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504 U.S. 555 (1992), argued 3 Dec. 1991, decided 12 June 1992 by a vote of 7 to 2; Scalia for the Court, Kennedy concurring in part joined by Souter, Stevens concurring in the judgment, Blackmun in dissent joined by O’Connor. In Lujan, which held that the environmental plaintiffs did not have standing to bring suit, Justice Antonin Scalia articulated his theory of standing as an element of the separation of powers. The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service had rescinded a joint regulation that required federal agencies to coordinate with one of the services if the agency's actions in a foreign nation would affect endangered species. Arguing that the rescission violated the Endangered Species Act, the Defenders of Wildlife sued the agencies under the act's citizen suit provision, which authorizes “any person” to bring an action against any agency or person alleged to be in violation of the act.

Prior cases had established that standing derives from Article III's limitation that federal courts hear only “cases and controversies.” One of the requirements for standing is that the plaintiff must demonstrate it is actually suffering or about to suffer injury. The Court held that “congressional conferral upon all persons of an abstract, self-contained, non-instrumental ‘right’ to have the Executive observe the procedures required by law” (p. 573) does not create a “right” the violation of which satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement of standing. Thus, the citizen suit provision did not suffice to create standing for the plaintiff. In explaining this conclusion, the Court's opinion indicated that the Constitution assigns the President the duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Were Congress by statute able to create a judicially enforceable right simply to make agencies follow the law, it would be usurping the President's constitutional duty and violating the separation of powers.

Lujan was one of a series of cases that interpreted the requirements of standing strictly and made it more difficult for plaintiffs to bring cases in federal courts. More recently, with the addition of Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Federal Election Comm’n v. Akins (1998) and Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw (2000), the Court applied the standing requirements more liberally.

William Funk

Subjects: Law.

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