ArtIII.S2.C1.1.5.3.1 Standing Requirement: Taxpayer Standing

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

Save for a narrow exception, standing is also lacking when a litigant attempts to sue to contest governmental action that he claims injures him as a taxpayer. In Frothingham v. Mellon, 1 the Court denied standing to a taxpayer suing to restrain disbursements of federal money to those states that chose to participate in a program to reduce maternal and infant mortality; her claim was that Congress lacked power to appropriate funds for those purposes and that the appropriations would increase her taxes in future years in an unconstitutional manner. Noting that a federal taxpayer's interest in the moneys of the Treasury . . . is comparatively minute and indeterminate and that the effect upon future taxation, of any payment out of the funds . . . [is] remote, fluctuating and uncertain, the Court ruled that plaintiff had failed to allege the type of direct injury necessary to confer standing. 2

Taxpayers were found to have standing, however, in Flast v. Cohen, 3 to contest the expenditure of federal moneys to assist religious-affiliated organizations. The Court asserted that the answer to the question whether taxpayers have standing depends on whether the circumstances of each case demonstrate that there is a logical nexus between the status asserted and the claim sought to be adjudicated. First, there must be a logical link between the status of taxpayer and the type of legislative enactment attacked; this means that a taxpayer must allege the unconstitutionality only of exercises of congressional power under the taxing and spending clause of Article I, § 8, rather than also of incidental expenditure of funds in the administration of an essentially regulatory statute. Second, there must be a logical nexus between the status of taxpayer and the precise nature of the constitutional infringement alleged; this means that the taxpayer must show that the challenged enactment exceeds specific constitutional limitations imposed upon the exercise of the taxing and spending power, rather than simply arguing that the enactment is generally beyond the powers delegated to Congress. Both Frothingham and Flast met the first test, because they attacked a spending program. Flast met the second test, because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment operates as a specific limitation upon the exercise of the taxing and spending power, but Frothingham did not, having alleged only that the Tenth Amendment had been exceeded. The Court reserved the question whether other specific limitations constrain the Taxing and Spending Clause in the same manner as the Establishment Clause. 4

Since Flast, the Court has refused to expand taxpayer standing. Litigants seeking standing as taxpayers to challenge legislation permitting the CIA to withhold from the public detailed information about its expenditures as a violation of Article I, § 9, cl. 7, and to challenge certain Members of Congress from holding commissions in the reserves as a violation of Article I, § 6, cl. 2, were denied standing, in the former cases because their challenge was not to an exercise of the taxing and spending power and in the latter because their challenge was not to legislation enacted under Article I, § 8, but rather was to executive action in permitting Members to maintain their reserve status. 5 An organization promoting church-state separation was denied standing to challenge an executive decision to donate surplus federal property to a church-related college, both because the contest was to executive action under valid legislation and because the property transfer was not pursuant to a Taxing and Spending Clause exercise but was taken under the Property Clause of Article IV, § 3, cl. 2. 6 The Court also refused to create an exception for Commerce Clause violations to the general prohibition on taxpayer standing. 7

Most recently, a Court plurality held that, even in Establishment Clause cases, there is no taxpayer standing where the expenditure of funds that is challenged was not specifically authorized by Congress, but came from general executive branch appropriations. 8

Where expenditures were not expressly authorized or mandated by any specific congressional enactment, a lawsuit challenging them is not directed at an exercise of congressional power and thus lacks the requisite 'logical nexus' between taxpayer status 'and the type of legislative enactment attacked.'9

Local taxpayers attacking local expenditures have generally been permitted more leeway than federal taxpayers insofar as standing is concerned. Thus, in Everson v. Board of Education, 10 a municipal taxpayer was found to have standing to challenge the use of public funds for transportation of pupils to parochial schools. 11 But, in Doremus v. Board of Education, 12 the Court refused an appeal from a state court for lack of standing of a taxpayer challenging Bible reading in the classroom. The taxpayer's action in Doremus, the Court wrote, is not a direct dollars-and-cents injury but is a religious difference.13 This rationale was similar to the spending program-regulatory program distinction of Flast. But, even a dollar-and-cents injury resulting from a state spending program will apparently not constitute a direct dollars-and-cents injury. The Court in Doremus wrote that a taxpayer challenging either a federal or a state statute must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is in immediate danger of sustaining some direct injury as a result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.14

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1Usually cited as Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923), the two suits having been consolidated.
  2.  Jump to essay-2262 U.S. at 487, 488. In Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 2553, 2559 (2007), the Court added that, if every federal taxpayer could sue to challenge any Government expenditure, the federal courts would cease to function as courts of law and would be cast in the role of general complaint bureaus.
  3.  Jump to essay-3392 U.S. 83 (1968).
  4.  Jump to essay-4392 U.S. at 105.
  5.  Jump to essay-5United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166 (1974); Schlesinger v. Reservists Comm. to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208, 227–28 (1974). Richardson in its generalized grievance constriction does not apply when Congress confers standing on litigants. FEC v. Akins, 524 U.S. 11 (1998). When Congress confers standing on any person aggrieved by the denial of information required to be furnished them, it matters not that most people will be entitled and will thus suffer a generalized grievance, the statutory entitlement is sufficient. Id. at 21–25.
  6.  Jump to essay-6Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United, 454 U.S. 464 (1982). In Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 353 n.3 (1996), the Court played down the serious and adversarial treatment prong of standing and strongly reasserted the separation-of-powers value of keeping courts within traditional bounds. The Court again took this approach in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 2553, 2569 (2007), finding that Flast itself gave too little weight to [separation-of-powers] concerns.
  7.  Jump to essay-7DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 347–49 (2006) (standing denied to taxpayer claim that state tax credit given to vehicle manufacturer violated the Commerce Clause).
  8.  Jump to essay-8Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 2553, 2559 (2007). This decision does not affect Establishment Clause cases in which the plaintiff can allege a personal injury. A plaintiff who challenges a government display of a religious object, for example, need not sue as a taxpayer but may have standing by alleging that he has undertaken a 'special burden' or has altered his behavior to avoid the object that gives him offense. . . . [I]t is enough for standing purposes that a plaintiff allege that he 'must come into direct and unwelcome contact with the religious display to participate fully as [a] citizen[ ] . . . and to fulfill . . . legal obligations.' Books v. Elkhart County, 401 F.3d 857, 861 (7th Cir. 2005). In Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 682 (2005), the Court, without mentioning standing, noted that the plaintiff has encountered the Ten Commandments monument during his frequent visits to the [Texas State] Capitol grounds. His visits are typically for the purpose of using the law library in the Supreme Court building, which is located just northwest of the Capitol building.
  9.  Jump to essay-9127 S. Ct. at 2568 (citations omitted). Justices Scalia and Thomas concurred in the judgment but would have overruled Flast. Justice Souter, joined by three other justices, dissented because he saw no logic in the distinction the plurality drew, as the plurality did not and could not have suggested that the taxpayers in Hein have any less stake in the outcome than the taxpayers in Flast. Id. at 2584.
  10.  Jump to essay-10330 U.S. 1 (1947). In DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 349 (2006), the Court held that a plaintiff's status as a municipal taxpayer does not give him standing to challenge a state tax credit.
  11.  Jump to essay-11See Bradfield v. Roberts, 175 U.S. 291, 295 (1899); Crampton v. Zabriskie, 101 U.S. 601 (1880); Heim v. McCall, 239 U.S. 175 (1915). See also Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948); Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) (plaintiffs suing as parents and taxpayers).
  12.  Jump to essay-12342 U.S. 429 (1952). Compare Alder v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952). See also Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974).
  13.  Jump to essay-13342 U.S. at 434.
  14.  Jump to essay-14342 U.S. at 434, quoting Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447, 488 (1923); quoted with approval in DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 345 (2006).