Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What is this "Standing" Business?

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal heard oral arguments in the Prop. 8 case yesterday.  If you heard or read any of the news reports, you likely heard about the issue of "standing."  In a case that raises big meaty constitutional, philosophical, and moral issues surrounding marriage--same-sex marriage in particular--you might be surprised that the key issue appears to be basically procedural.

So what is this whole "standing" thing, anyway?  Basically, "standing" means that a party to a law suit actually has an interest in the controversy; i.e. they actually suffered an injury because of another party's action.  It's not enough to simply not like something, or to simply be offended by something someone else does.  You have to actually be injured in some way.

Why does this matter?  At the top, it's about practicality.  Lawsuits consume a lot of time, energy, and money--none of which are limitless--so the legal system has to create some method of limiting the number of potential lawsuits.  If we could all sue anyone simply because we didn't like what they were doing, the courts would be even more backlogged than they already are.  The important cases would get lost in the mess; collective injustice being the result because the courts' ability to redress genuine wrongs would be essentially nonexistent.

That would be bad enough on its own, but there is a deeper issue at work as well.  Standing is also about liberty.  If everyone could sue without showing standing--proving they suffered a real injury--then no one could live freely.  Your personal liberty should not be curtailed unless the exercise of that liberty harms others.

Consider the standing issue in the Prop. 8 appeal.  Supporters of Prop. 8 brought suit to keep same-sex couples from marrying.  The court wants to know how same sex marriage actually harms anyone?  Clearly, if there is a fundamental right to marry that the people of California cannot deny same-sex couples, those same-sex couples are injured by Prop. 8's enforcement.  The same cannot be said of people who oppose same-sex marriage.  Sure, they may not approve but that is thin ice in terms of injury.  Essentially, the court is asking Prop. 8 defenders, "where's the beef?"