There is a legal concept called standing that determines who can go into court to bring a lawsuit.  Courts address standing as a threshold matter: they have to decide if parties have a right to be in court before they look at the dispute the parties are having.

Standing is an especially complicated area of law, but as a general principle, a party has to be injured to bring a lawsuit.  So, for example, if Tom catches Jerry and harms him, Jerry can sue Tom.  Spike and Tyke, who live down the block and hear rumors that Tom hurt Jerry, probably can’t sue Tom for hurting Jerry because they have no stake in the matter.  On the other hand, Spike and Tyke can sue Tom if, in the process of hurting Jerry, Tom messes up their doghouse. Since Tom ruined their doghouse, they suffered their own injury.

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Standing can make it very challenging for animal (and environmental) advocates to go to court to protect animal interests.  When humans are cruel to animals, the animals suffer primary injuries.  But since animals have far too few rights in the United States and cannot go to court themselves, humans (almost) always must establish some kind of injury to bring the case on their own behalf.

Animal Law groups surmount standing hurdles all the time.  They argue, for example, that people who witness the mistreatment of animals suffer “aesthetic” injuries, or that organizations have to divert resources to protect animals, which injures them financially.  But animal and environmental lawyers spend almost as much time arguing for standing as they do arguing the merits of their cases.

That brings us to TransUnion, a recent Supreme Court case that had nothing to do with animals. (For the very curious, a group of people sued credit reporting agencies that had listed them as potential terrorist matches on their credit reports.) In deciding that some of these people had standing to sue whereas others did not, the Supreme Court again took a narrow view of standing. Justice Thomas, a highly conservative justice, argued alongside the three liberal Justices that (at least when it comes to asserting private rights) Congress should be able to pass laws that decide when someone can bring a lawsuit. In other words, if the statute says a person can go to court, then the person should be able to go to court.  But the other five conservative Justices disagreed and reiterated that Congress does not get to decide when a person is injured.

The upshot? After TransUnion, it’s just as hard, if not harder, to bring a case in federal court.  And every time the Supreme Court takes a narrow view of standing, it makes it a bit harder for animal advocates in the legal system—whether the case involves animals or not.

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Want to learn more about animal advocacy in the law?  Check out the Brooks Animal Law Digest, a new resource supported by Harvard’s Animal Law and Policy Program; the Animal Law Podcast; and the non-profits fighting for animals in court, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Outlook, HSUS, NhRP & PETA.  If you want more updates about the U.S. Supreme Court arguments and opinions, you can check for updates at ScotusBlog, Oyez, and Oral Argument 2.0.

For more in One Green Planet about animals in the law, check out:

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