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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Flast v. Cohen: Flaws and misinterpretations of major precedent concerning taxpayer standing in establishment clause cases

Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968), has been a major precedent on taxpayer standing to sue in establishment clause cases, yet it is badly flawed and has been widely misinterpreted. Flast said at 102-103,

" The nexus demanded of federal taxpayers has two aspects to it. First, the taxpayer must establish a logical link between that status and the type of legislative enactment attacked. Thus, a taxpayer will be a proper party to allege the unconstitutionality only of exercises of congressional power under the taxing and spending clause of Art. I, 8, of the Constitution. It will not be sufficient to allege an incidental expenditure of tax funds in the administration of an essentially regulatory statute . . . . Secondly, the taxpayer must establish a nexus between that status and the precise nature of the constitutional infringement alleged. Under this requirement, the taxpayer must show that the challenged enactment exceeds [392 U.S. 83, 103] specific constitutional limitations imposed upon the exercise of the congressional taxing and spending power and not simply that the enactment is generally beyond the powers delegated to Congress by Art. I, 8. (emphasis added)

It is generally falsely assumed that the first requirement shown in bold ("It will not be sufficient to allege ...") was added by Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation [1] [2]. I was not even aware of that sentence in bold until I saw it cited in Caldwell v. Caldwell, which was decided before Hein. In Hein, even the majority in the appeals court decision ignored Flast's above statement in bold -- Supreme Court Justice Alito, in an opinion joined by two other justices, said,

A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. 433 F. 3d 989. The majority read Flast as granting federal taxpayers standing to challenge Executive Branch programs on Establishment Clause grounds so long as the activities are “financed by a congressional appropriation.” 433 F. 3d, at 997. This was the case, the majority concluded, even where “there is no statutory program” enacted by Congress and the funds are “from appropriations for the general administrative expenses, over which the President and other executive branch officials have a degree of discretionary power.” Id.,at 994. According to the majority, a taxpayer has standing to challenge anything done by a federal agency or officer so long as “the marginal or incremental cost to the taxpaying public of the alleged violation of the establishment clause” is greater than “zero.” Id., at 995. . . . . .

. . . . . The Court of Appeals denied en banc review by a vote of seven to four. 447 F. 3d 988 (CA7 2006). Concurring in the denial of rehearing, Chief Judge Flaum expressed doubt about the panel decision, but noted that “the obvious tension which has evolved in this area of jurisprudence … can only be resolved by the Supreme Court.” Ibid.

BTW, the lead federal party when the case was in the appeals court was Chao and not Hein, so the correct citation for the appeals court decision is Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Chao, 433 F. 3d 989 (7th Circuit 2006). Also, the district court decision in the case is designated as Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Towey, No. 04–C–381–S (WD Wis., Nov. 15, 2004). All very confusing -- they should stick to one set of names for the parties.

Another appeals court judge said in the denial of the request for an en banc rehearing,
.
The principal difficulty with arguments pro and con about taxpayer standing is that the doctrine is arbitrary. Taxpayers lack standing to complain about almost all expenditures. Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968), held that taxpayer suits about religious outlays are special . . . . To the extent that the Establishment Clause forbids taxation to support religion, people subject to the illegal levy may obtain relief, but plaintiffs in this litigation do not say that they have paid one extra penny because of the grant. Where's the concrete injury? The loss (if any) is mental distress that plaintiffs, who are bystanders to the challenged program, suffer by knowing about conduct that they deem wrongful. Article III does not permit courts to entertain such complaints. (citations omitted) . . . .Our panel's majority has concluded that the doctrine of taxpayer standing will be more logical if it covers administrative as well as legislative earmarks. I grant that proposition -- but comprehensiveness and rationality are not this doctrine's hallmarks. Why may taxpayers complain about outlays of cash but not about a distribution of real or personal property? (citation omitted) . . . . Why may taxpayers complain about modest expenditures (the grant in Laskowski was $500,000, or less than a cent per U.S. taxpayer) but not about slightly smaller ones? . . . .Perhaps Michael Newdow should have invoked his tax return, rather than his status as a father, to challenge the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. [my comment: the Supreme Court threw out Newdow's suit on the grounds of the technicality that he did not have legal custody of his biological daughter, his mascot in the suit] . . . .

But this arbitrariness is built into the doctrine as it comes to us . . . .The problem is not of our creation and cannot be solved locally. There is no logical way to determine the extent of an arbitrary rule. Only the rule's proprietors can bring harmony -- whether by extension or contraction -- or decide to tolerate the existing state of affairs. (emphasis added)

Regarding that statement in bold about mental distress not being grounds for standing to sue in federal courts: mental distress is the sole basis for many kinds of federal suits. Darwinists have failed to show why plaintiffs' mental distress alone was grounds for standing to sue in Kitzmiller v. Dover and Selman v. Cobb County but not in Caldwell v. Caldwell.

Also, though the Supreme Court granted the Flast plaintiffs standing to sue, the suit did not satisfy Flast's above condition that "[i]t will not be sufficient to allege an incidental expenditure of tax funds in the administration of an essentially regulatory statute," because the federal statute in Flast did not expressly authorize the alleged unconstitutional expenditure of tax funds -- Flast said (392 U.S. 83, 85-87),

Appellants filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to enjoin the allegedly unconstitutional expenditure of federal funds under Titles I and II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 79 Stat. 27, 20 U.S.C. 241a et seq., 821 et seq. (1964 ed., Supp. II). The complaint alleged that the seven appellants had as a common attribute that "each pay[s] income taxes of the United States," and it is clear from the complaint that the appellants were resting their standing to maintain the action solely on their status as federal taxpayers. 1 The appellees, who are charged by Congress with administering the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, were sued in their official capacities.

The gravamen of the appellants' complaint was that federal funds appropriated under the Act were being used to finance instruction in reading, arithmetic, and other subjects in religious schools, and to purchase textbooks [392 U.S. 83, 86] and other instructional materials for use in such schools. Such expenditures were alleged to be in contravention of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. Appellants' constitutional attack focused on the statutory criteria which state and local authorities must meet to be eligible for federal grants under the Act. Title I of the Act establishes a program for financial assistance to local educational agencies for the education of low-income families. Federal payments are made to state educational agencies, which pass the payments on in the form of grants to local educational agencies. Under 205 of the Act, 20 U.S.C. 241e, a local educational agency wishing to have a plan or program funded by a grant must submit the plan or program to the appropriate state educational agency for approval. The plan or program must be "consistent with such basic criteria as the [appellee United States Commissioner of Education] may establish." The specific criterion of that section attacked by the appellants is the requirement

"that, to the extent consistent with the number of educationally deprived children in the school district of the local educational agency who are enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools, such agency has made provision for including special educational services and arrangements (such as dual enrollment, educational radio and television, and mobile educational services and equipment) in which such children can participate . . . ." 20 U.S.C. 241e (a) (2).

Under 206 of the Act, 20 U.S.C. 241f, the Commissioner of Education is given broad powers to supervise a State's participation in Title I programs and grants. Title II of the Act establishes a program of federal grants for the acquisition of school library resources, textbooks, [392 U.S. 83, 87] and other printed and published instructional materials "for the use of children and teachers in public and private elementary and secondary schools." 20 U.S.C. 821. A State wishing to participate in the program must submit a plan to the Commissioner for approval, and the plan must

"provide assurance that to the extent consistent with law such library resources, textbooks, and other instructional materials will be provided on an equitable basis for the use of children and teachers in private elementary and secondary schools in the State . . . ." 20 U.S.C. 823 (a) (3) (B).

While disclaiming any intent to challenge as unconstitutional all programs under Title I of the Act, the complaint alleges that federal funds have been disbursed under the Act, "with the consent and approval of the [appellees]," and that such funds have been used and will continue to be used to finance "instruction in reading, arithmetic and other subjects and for guidance in religious and sectarian schools" and "the purchase of textbooks and instructional and library materials for use in religious and sectarian schools." Such expenditures of federal tax funds, appellants alleged, violate the First Amendment because "they constitute a law respecting an establishment of religion" and because "they prohibit the free exercise of religion on the part of the [appellants] . . . by reason of the fact that they constitute compulsory taxation for religious purposes." The complaint asked for a declaration that appellees' actions in approving the expenditure of federal funds for the alleged purposes were not authorized by the Act or, in the alternative, that if appellees' actions are deemed within the authority and intent of the Act, "the Act is to that extent unconstitutional and void."

Also, I dispute the second bolded statement in the Flast quote at the top of the post, i.e., "the taxpayer must show that the challenged enactment exceeds specific constitutional limitations imposed upon the exercise of the congressional taxing and spending power and not simply that the enactment is generally beyond the powers delegated to Congress by Art. I, 8." I fail to see the big difference between (1) being "generally beyond" Congress's taxing and spending powers enumerated in Art 1, Sec. 8 and (2) exceeding "specific constitutional limitations imposed upon the exercise of" those powers. Is the list of congressional taxing and spending powers in Art. 1 section 8 just a list of suggestions, or is it also a limitation on the powers of Congress? And how is the Establishment Clause the only "specific constitutional limitation upon . . . the exercise of those powers" that is grounds for taxpayer standing to sue? In his dissent in Hein, Justice Scalia -- joined by Justice Thomas -- said, as described in the syllabus --

The Court's taxpayer standing cases involving Establishment Clause challenges to government expenditures are notoriously inconsistent because they have inconsistently described the relevant "injury in fact" that Article III requires. Some cases have focused on the financial effect on the taxpayer's wallet, whereas Flast and the cases that follow its teaching have emphasized the mental displeasure the taxpayer suffers when his funds are extracted and spent in aid of religion. There are only two logical routes available with respect to taxpayer standing. If the mental displeasure created by Establishment Clause violations is concrete and particularized enough to constitute an Article III "injury in fact," then Flast should be applied to (at a minimum) all challenges to government expenditures allegedly violating constitutional provisions that specifically limit the taxing and spending power; if not, Flast should be overturned.

And Justice Harlan said in his dissenting opinion in Flast, (392 U.S. 83, 130),

I am quite unable to understand how, if a taxpayer believes that a given public expenditure is unconstitutional, and if he seeks to vindicate that belief in a federal court, his interest in the suit can be said necessarily to vary according to the constitutional provision under which he states his claim.

. . . .Apparently the Court, having successfully circumnavigated the issue, has merely returned to the proposition from which it began. A litigant, it seems, will have standing if he is "deemed" to have the requisite interest, and "if you . . . have standing, then you can be confident you are" suitably interested. (citation omitted)

Judges spend more time and effort trying to duck real questions than they spend trying to answer them.
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