Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Standing and the proper defendants
To absolutely no one's surprise, a panel of the D.C. Circuit rejected the challenge to the constitutionality of the Senate's filibuster rule (shout-out to Josh Chafetz and Michael Gerhardt for the citation). The district court had found none of the plaintiffs (Common Cause, some members of the House, and some people who would have benefitted from certain filibustered bills, notably the DISCLOSE Act and the DREAM Act) lacked standing--none had not suffered any cognizable injury in fact, they could not show the bills would have passed but for the filibuster, and no injunction could have accorded them relief. Fed Courts 101 (and still a course everyone should take).
The circuit court took a different path: The problem was that the plaintiffs had sued the wrong defendants. The proper defendants were the Senate and the Senators who made, retained, and voted according to the filibuster rule with respect to the bills at issue. But all Senators would enjoy absolute legislative immunity, so they could not be sued. Nor could a court impose the remedy the plaintiffs wanted--an injunction prohibiting the 60-vote requirement and compelling the Senate to adopt a simple-majority rule.
To get around that, the plaintiffs sued Vice President Biden (in his role as President of the Senate) and a bunch of non-Senator Senate officers (Sergeant-in-Arms, Parliamentarian, and Secretary) as the people responsible for "enforcing" or "executing" Senate rules. (Powell v. McCormack being the obvious precedent). But that did not work here, because the named defendants did not do anything that caused the alleged injury, since the injury was the Senators' use of the 60-vote requirement.
This analysis adds a new wrinkle to the causation prong of standing by making the identity of the defendant an element of that prong. It requires not only that the defendants' action caused the harm, but also that these defendants caused that harm. Plaintiffs must show a link between conduct and harm and that they got the "right guys" in their suit. And causation--and thus standing--is absent if either one is absent.
But doing it this way shows-again-why standing makes so little sense as a jurisdictional rather than merits rule. In any other context--including constitutional claims, even constitutional claims for injunctive relief (where standing always comes up)--it is a merits dismissal when the plaintiff sues the wrong defendant. Moreover, had the plaintiffs sued the Senators--thus solving the standing issue as viewed by the court of appeals--the legislative immunity defense would have produced a merits dismissal, not a jurisdictional dismissal.
At bottom, however, this is all about how plaintiffs structure their lawsuits--who sues, who they sue, what they sue for, what remedy they seek. It should have nothing to do with federal structural jurisdictional concerns.