Actionable Injury

I have to admit, Mike’s posts awhile back, a few other blogs, and some listserve chatter I’ve read lately have me dwelling on the oral argument in Massachusetts v. EPA. I keep coming back to the notion of an “injury in fact” as if this is supposed to be distinct from an “injury in law.” I admit I don’t think it makes much sense at all, unless it stands for something very different from judicial self-restraint.

The “Hohfeldian” plaintiff is usually welcome in federal court as someone with an intuitive gripe, someone whose motives can’t but be personal, pecuniary, and, thus, well, pure. They seek only to redress the wrongs done to them, wrongs with a definite cash value or easily imaginable injunction, easily pled and used to motivate a bipolar litigation. Ever since Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992), the concept of injury in fact has become the chief mechanism of excluding everyone else. It is a notion that, when convenient, becomes loosely federated with the “separation of powers,” supposedly as a way to keep “cases” and “controversies” tied to litigants with pure motives. Other plaintiffs, the ones who might also “seek” a remedy from the “Executive branch” through better or different administration of the law, are not as welcome—at least most of the time. But where in the Constitution does it say that the "judicial Power" is locked into what it was in 1789?

The real target of this case law is Congress’s ambition that wrongs to the public at large be judicially redressable. Recall that Lujan v. Defenders involved plaintiffs well within the class of persons Congress meant to empower to challenge the Interior Secretary’s administration of the Endangered Species Act. Recall also that the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 702, empowers persons “suffering legal wrong because of agency action.” In all of the cases where the Rehnquist (and now perhaps the Roberts’) Court denies standing to non-Hohfeldian plaintiffs, the “injury” in question is usually very clear--and it is usually environmental in nature. It is no less clear than the injury to an atheist stemming from the public display of a crèche this time of year. Judicial refusals to acknowledge these injuries or efforts to erect new proof burdens that are practically impossible to overcome are an abusive refusal to judge and to vindicate the legal interests Congress creates when it legislates.

Granted, it is not always just about the extension of the rule of law when Congress legislates causes of action into existence. But the selectivity with which the modern Court has received Congress’s efforts is arresting when surveyed. In any event, I invite readers in the DC area to a panel discussion I’ll be moderating tomorrow at the Environmental Law Institute on L Street at noon, here.