UnderStanding the Sting in Hollingsworth v. Perry

I’m of course happy that the Supreme Court today issued two rulings that affirm the validity of state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. The full texts are at US v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

But I have to say that there is some bitter wrapped up in the sweet. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion in Hollingsworth has a pretty bad sting, one well laid-out in Justice Kennedy’s dissent. The issue for me goes back to a key standing decision, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555 (1992). That decision held open the door to ‘bounty’ statutes creating standing: thus if Congress, or a state legislature, wanted to create generalized standing, it need only create a small dollar prize for vindicating a right. At that point, there’s a financial interest, and anyone can bring the case. (Thus, for example, qui tam actions.) As a general matter, liberals have wanted to expand access to courts, and conservatives have sought to narrow it — although one might question the political wisdom of the liberal strategy since the current Court is, IMHO, merely regressing to a historic mean; the Warren Court was a rare departure from the generally conservative, even reactionary, bent which is almost a structural feature of a life-tenured judiciary staffed primarily by older lawyers.

The key move in Hollingsworth, per Roberts with the votes of Scalia and (perhaps unfortunately?) the Court’s moderates and liberals, is to say that California’s state law practice of saying that proponents of a ballot initiative have standing to sue to vindicate it does not cut any ice in federal court. I hope this does not come back to bite us, but I’m fairly sure that it will in future standing cases.

Update: Mark Tushnet is worried about this too. In Perry and the Constitutionalization of Agency Law he writes:

The question then is, What other state-law entitlements are constrained by Article III for standing purposes? (Here “state-law” is a shorthand for “entitlements created by law outside Article III,” so the principle applies to congressionally-determined entitlements as well.) Akins says that Congress can create a right to information merely to satisfy the requestor’s curiosity; Lujan says that Congress can’t create a right to ensure that “the law” be adhered to. Perry is somewhere in between, but who knows exactly where. Maybe the technical problem in Perry is that the California Supreme Court didn’t use the right magic words to describe the initiative proponents as “really, really” agents of the people.

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