On Monday, I blogged about standing in Town of Greece v. Galloway, and Howard’s subsequent comments on that subject have reminded me of an interesting recent development in standing scholarship that I’d like to draw attention to here. In short, Judge Fletcher—a renowned critic of modern standing doctrine—recently wrote that his “views have softened somewhat.”
To recap, Howard initially suggested that standing might be found in Town of Greece and other Establishment Clause cases based on a plaintiff’s feeling of religious offense or exclusion, even in the absence of coercion. But in fleshing out that instinct, Howard found it tricky to avoid collapsing the distinction between standing and the merits—a move that current standing doctrine frowns on. To state Howard’s point using the categories of my earlier post, when trying to make answer #5 work, it’s tempting to slide into answers #4 or #6.
In particular, it’s tempting to slide into the theory famously put forward by then-Professor and now-Judge William A. Fletcher. To grossly simplify his beyond-classic article, Fletcher argued that the scope of standing should turn on the merits, that is, on the meaning of the substantive law at issue. From that vantage, an inquiry into “injury in fact” seemed pointless—or worse. In a well-known passage, Fletcher compared the injury-in-fact requirement with “substantive due process.” Here’s an excerpt:
To use a phrase that is particular anathema to those members of the Court most anxious to tell us that there are Article III limitations on statutory grants of standing, one may even say that the ‘injury in fact’ test is a form of substantive due process.
This was a drop-the-mic moment—a powerful and compelling charge of intellectual hypocrisy.
One difficulty with that line of attack, however, is that a lot of people like substantive due process, and many of them are otherwise sympathetic to Fletcher’s critique of standing doctrine. As so often happens, inconsistency could be viewed as a two-edged sword.
With that background, consider Fletcher’s recent contribution to a terrific Alabama Law Review symposium in honor of Fletcher’s work on standing. I’ll only reproduce portions of Fletcher’s keynote remarks here, but I recommend reading them all:
I have rethought a few things, helped in part by the papers contributed to this Symposium. In my article, I criticized the Supreme Court for not admitting what it was doing. The Court wrote that its purpose in limiting standing under Article III was to exercise judicial restraint and thereby preserve our democracy. In Justice Scalia’s words, the Court was preventing the “overjudicialization” of our government. But each time the Court holds that a grant of standing to enforce a statutory duty is unconstitutional under Article III, the Court is doing precisely what it says it is not doing. It is not deferring to the exercise of power by our democratically elected legislative body. Quite the contrary. It is restraining Congress’s power and increasing its own.
While I have not exactly changed my mind, I have to say that my views have softened somewhat. I no longer insist so vigorously that the Court explain what it is doing and why, and I no longer object so strenuously to the Court’s substituting its view for Congress’s.
[Fletcher then discussed leading standing cases involving the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and environmental law.]
… I regard all three lines of cases as examples of the Supreme Court’s use of its lawmaking power. …
The Supreme Court has not, and will not, explain its Establishment Clause, equal protection, and environmental standing decisions in the way that I have just explained them. It has not, and will not, state openly the degree to which it is making law. This is not a new phenomenon. Common law courts have always been reluctant to say openly the degree to which they are changing the law. They much prefer to emphasize the degree to which their decisions are consistent with, even compelled by, decisions reached in earlier cases. I do not regard the Court’s unwillingness, perhaps inability, to explain what it is doing as illegitimate or improper. The Justices are acting in the way they and their predecessors have always acted, making law even as they seek to disguise the degree to which they are doing it.
Given that Fletcher has been an intellectual leader both in the academy and, now, on the bench, his “softened” views seem noteworthy—particularly since they’re coupled with a candid description of how “[c]ommon law courts have always been reluctant to say openly the degree to which they are changing the law.” Indeed, Fletcher’s softer attitude toward standing doctrine seems linked to a similar change in attitude toward the exercise of what he calls the Supreme Court’s “lawmaking power.” As he puts it, “I no longer object so strenuously to the Court’s substituting its view for Congress’s.”
To my mind, Fletcher’s “rethought” view of standing addresses a significant set of questions raised by his original piece. And it adds an interesting perspective on the standing issue in Town of Greece and many other cases.