Access to Courts
Taxpayer and Citizen Suits
Valley Force College v. Americans United
454 U.S. 464 (1982)
Pursuant to its authority under the Property Clause, Congress enacted the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 to provide an economical and efficient system for the disposal of surplus Federal Government property. Under the statute, property that has outlived its usefulness to the Government is declared "surplus" and may be transferred to private or other public entities. The Act authorizes the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) (now the Secretary of Education) to assume responsibility for disposing of surplus real property for educational use, and he may sell such property to nonprofit, tax-exempt educational institutions for consideration that takes into account any benefit which has accrued or may accrue to the United States from the transferee's use of the property. Property formerly used as a military hospital was declared to be "surplus property" under the Act and was conveyed by the Department of HEW to petitioner church-related college. The appraised value of the property, $ 577,500, was discounted by the Secretary of HEW's [***2] computation of a 100% public benefit allowance, thus permitting petitioner to acquire the property without making any financial payment. Respondents, an organization dedicated to the separation of church and State and several of its employees, brought suit in Federal District Court, challenging the conveyance on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and alleging that each member of respondent organization "would be deprived of the fair and constitutional use of his (her) tax dollars." The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that respondents lacked standing to sue as taxpayers under Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, and failed to allege any actual injury beyond a generalized grievance common to all taxpayers. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that although respondents lacked standing as taxpayers to challenge the conveyance, they had standing merely as "citizens," claiming "'injury in fact' to their shared individuated right to a government that 'shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,'" which standing was sufficient to satisfy the "case or controversy" requirement of Art. III.
[***3] Held: Respondents do not have standing, either in their capacity as taxpayers or as citizens, to challenge the conveyance in question. Pp. 471-490.
(a) The exercise of judicial power under Art. III is restricted to litigants who can show "injury in fact" resulting from the action that they seek to have the court adjudicate. Pp. 471-476.
(b) Respondents are without standing to sue as taxpayers, because the source of their complaint is not a congressional action but a decision by HEW to transfer a parcel of federal property and because the conveyance in question was not an exercise of Congress' authority conferred by the Taxing and Spending Clause but by the Property Clause. Cf. Flast v. Cohen, supra. Pp. 476-482.
(c) Nor have respondents sufficiently alleged any other basis for standing to bring suit. Although they claim that the Constitution has been violated, they claim nothing else. They fail to identify any personal injury suffered as a consequence of the alleged constitutional error, other than the psychological consequence presumably produced by observation of conduct with which one disagrees. That is not injury sufficient to confer standing [***4] under Art. III. While respondents are firmly committed to the constitutional principle of separation of church and State, standing is not measured by the intensity of the litigant's interest or the fervor of his advocacy. Pp. 482-487.
(d) Enforcement of the Establishment Clause does not justify special exceptions from the standing requirements of Art. III. There is no place in our constitutional scheme for the philosophy that the business of the federal courts is correcting constitutional errors and that "cases and controversies" are at best merely convenient vehicles for doing so and at worst nuisances that may be dispensed with when they become obstacles to that transcendent endeavor. And such philosophy does not become more palatable when the underlying merits concern the Establishment Clause. Pp. 488-490.