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Daily Legalese: Standing

The term "standing" has been in the news today with the highly-publicized rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage. In the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, SCOTUS declined to rule on a lower court's invalidation of California's constitutional amendment banning that state from applying the term marriage to same-sex unions, known popularly as Proposition Eight after the 2008 ballot referendum leading to its enactment. In a 5-4 decision, an ideologically-eclectic coalition of justices held that the appellants in the Hollingsworth case, members of an activist group who under California law sought and obtained the inclusion of Proposition Eight on the ballot, did not have standing to appeal the lower court's invalidation of the amendment when the state declined to do so. Because the petitioners did not have standing to appeal, SCOTUS did not decide the legality of the amendment, which would potentially have national impact on other states, and simply let the lower court's invalidation remain in place, affecting only California.


So, what is "standing"? The general definition is that standing refers to "a party's right to make a legal claim or seek judicial enforcement of a duty or right." See Black's Law Dictionary 1442 (8th Ed. 2004). In determining that the petitioners in Hollingsworth did not have standing to bring the controversy to SCOTUS for decision on the merits, the Court found that the petitioners' mere interest in the validity of the California amendment was insufficient, but that they personally needed to show actual direct injuries, or immediate danger of direct injuries, as a result of the invalidation of the amendment, as opposed to generalized grievances or disagreements. Without standing, SCOTUS found that there was no actual "case or controversy" jurisdiction under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, meaning that it could not issue a decision on the merits. 

Although in practice sometimes much more complex than this basic definition, "standing" means that, in order to take a controversy to court, a party must have some actual injury or right at stake. It is not enough to simply generally disagree with a action or a law. This doctrine helps to prevent courts from overstepping their bounds into acting in a legislative function and helps to preserve the separation of powers necessary to our system of governance.   

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