William & Mary Law Review


Heather Elliott


The Supreme Court interprets Article III’s case-or-controversy language to require a plaintiff to show injury in fact, causation, and redressability. A plaintiff who meets that tripartite test has standing to sue and thus a personal stake in pursuing the litigation. Accordingly, in Sierra Club v. Morton, the Supreme Court prohibited pure private attorneys general: litigants who would sue without the requisite personal stake. This limitation extends to organizations. They, too, must show standing on their own account or, under Hunt v. Washington Apple Advertising Commission, identify a member with Article III standing and show how the lawsuit is germane to the organization’s purpose.

Yet when Hunt interacts with the complexities of modern standing doctrine, it becomes clear that many associations, particularly those that are large or have broad purposes, can show standing for virtually any lawsuit. Moreover, recent scholarship has plausibly suggested that municipalities can be treated as associations under Hunt; municipal purposes are so broad, and some cities are so big, that they could litigate almost any case they wish. But the purpose of the ban on pure private attorneys general is to avoid giving any plaintiff a roving commission to enforce the law. Thus, Sierra Club and Hunt are in serious tension.

This unnoticed conflict is further evidence of the notorious incoherence of Article III standing itself and might sensibly trigger a rethinking of the entire doctrine. Such reform seems highly unlikely, however, given nearly fifty years of standing’s reign. Alternatively, Congress—which is far better placed than the courts to make necessary factual determinations—could take steps to resolve the conflict between Sierra Club and Hunt. But Congress has other priorities. More modestly, the Court could make some changes at the margins of Hunt and Sierra Club, to ameliorate the tension between the two strands of standing doctrine.