SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
HOLLINGSWORTH v. PERRY
Decided June 26, 2013Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.
The public is currently engaged in an active political debate over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. That question has also given rise to litigation. In this case, petitioners, who oppose same-sex marriage, ask us to decide whether the Equal Protection Clause “prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Respondents, same-sex couples who wish to marry, view the issue in somewhat different terms: For them, it is whether California—having previously recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry—may reverse that decision through a referendum.
Federal courts have authority under the Constitution to answer such questions only if necessary to do so in the course of deciding an actual “case” or “controversy.” As used in the Constitution, those words do not include every sort of dispute, but only those “historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process.” This is an essential limit on our power: It ensures that we act as judges, and do not engage in policymaking properly left to elected representatives.
For there to be such a case or controversy, it is not enough that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue. That party must also have “standing,” which requires, among other things, that it have suffered a concrete and particularized injury. Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit.
In 2008, the California Supreme Court held that limiting the official designation of marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. Later that year, California voters passed the ballot initiative at the center of this dispute, known as Proposition 8. That proposition amended the California Constitution to provide that “[o]nly marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The California Supreme Court rejected a procedural challenge to the amendment, and held that the Proposition was properly enacted under California law....
Respondents, two same-sex couples
who wish to marry, filed suit in federal court,
challenging Proposition 8 under the Due Process and
Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth
Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The
complaint named as defendants California’s Governor,
attorney general, and various other state and local
officials responsible for enforcing California’s
marriage laws. Those officials refused to defend the
law, although they have continued to enforce it
throughout this litigation. The District Court allowed
petitioners—the official proponents of the
initiative—to intervene to defend it. After a 12-day
bench trial, the District Court declared Proposition 8
unconstitutional, permanently enjoining the California
officials named as defendants from enforcing the law,
and “directing the official defendants that all
persons under their control or supervision” shall not
Those officials elected not to appeal the District Court order. When petitioners did, the Ninth Circuit asked them to address “why this appeal should not be dismissed for lack of Article III standing.” After briefing and argument, the Ninth Circuit certified a question to the California Supreme Court:
“Whether under the California Constitution, or otherwise under California law, the official proponents of an initiative measure possess either a particularized interest in the initiative’s validity or the authority to assert the State’s interest in the initiative’s validity, which would enable them to defend the constitutionality of the initiative upon its adoption or appeal a judgment invalidating the initiative, when the public officials charged with that duty refuse to do so.”
The California Supreme Court agreed
to decide the certified question, and answered in the
affirmative. Without addressing whether the proponents
have a particularized interest of their own in an
initiative’s validity, the court concluded that “[i]n
a postelection challenge to a voter-approved
initiative measure, the official proponents of the
initiative are authorized under California law to
appear and assert the state’s interest in the
initiative’s validity and to appeal a judgment
invalidating the measure when the public officials who
ordinarily defend the measure or appeal such a
judgment decline to do so.”
Relying on that answer, the Ninth Circuit concluded that petitioners had standing under federal law to defend the constitutionality of Proposition 8.... On the merits, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court. The court held the Proposition unconstitutional under the rationale of our decision in Romer v. Evans (1996) . In the Ninth Circuit’s view, Romer stands for the proposition that “the Equal Protection Clause requires the state to have a legitimate reason for withdrawing a right or benefit from one group but not others, whether or not it was required to confer that right or benefit in the first place.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that “taking away the official designation” of “marriage” from same-sex couples, while continuing to afford those couples all the rights and obligations of marriage, did not further any legitimate interest of the State. Proposition 8, in the court’s view, violated the Equal Protection Clause because it served no purpose “but to impose on gays and lesbians, through the public law, a majority’s private disapproval of them and their relationships.” I
We granted certiorari to review that determination, and directed that the parties also brief and argue “Whether petitioners have standing under Article III, §2, of the Constitution in this case.”
Article III of the Constitution
confines the judicial power of federal courts to
deciding actual “Cases” or “Controversies.” One
essential aspect of this requirement is that any
person invoking the power of a federal court must
demonstrate standing to do so. This requires the
litigant to prove that he has suffered a concrete and
particularized injury that is fairly traceable to the
challenged conduct, and is likely to be redressed by a
favorable judicial decision. In other words, for a
federal court to have authority under the Constitution
to settle a dispute, the party before it must seek a
remedy for a personal and tangible harm. “The presence
of a disagreement, however sharp and acrimonious it
may be, is insufficient by itself to meet Art. III’s
The doctrine of standing, we recently explained, “serves to prevent the judicial process from being used to usurp the powers of the political branches.” In light of this “overriding and time-honored concern about keeping the Judiciary’s power within its proper constitutional sphere, we must put aside the natural urge to proceed directly to the merits of [an] important dispute and to ‘settle’ it for the sake of convenience and efficiency.”
Most standing cases consider whether a plaintiff has satisfied the requirement when filing suit, but Article III demands that an “actual controversy” persist throughout all stages of litigation. That means that standing “must be met by persons seeking appellate review, just as it must be met by persons appearing in courts of first instance.” We therefore must decide whether petitioners had standing to appeal the District Court’s order.
Respondents initiated this case in the District Court against the California officials responsible for enforcing Proposition 8. The parties do not contest that respondents had Article III standing to do so. Each couple expressed a desire to marry and obtain “official sanction” from the State, which was unavailable to them given the declaration in Proposition 8 that “marriage” in California is solely between a man and a woman. App. 59.
After the District Court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional and enjoined the state officials named as defendants from enforcing it, however, the inquiry under Article III changed. Respondents no longer had any injury to redress—they had won—and the state officials chose not to appeal.
The only individuals who sought to appeal that order were petitioners, who had intervened in the District Court. But the District Court had not ordered them to do or refrain from doing anything. To have standing, a litigant must seek relief for an injury that affects him in a “personal and individual way.” He must possess a “direct stake in the outcome” of the case. . Here, however, petitioners had no “direct stake” in the outcome of their appeal. Their only interest in having the District Court order reversed was to vindicate the constitutional validity of a generally applicable California law.
We have repeatedly held that such a “generalized grievance,” no matter how sincere, is insufficient to confer standing. A litigant “raising only a generally available grievance about government—claiming only harm to his and every citizen’s interest in proper application of the Constitution and laws, and seeking relief that no more directly and tangibly benefits him than it does the public at large—does not state an Article III case or controversy.”
Petitioners argue that the
California Constitution and its election laws give
them a ‘unique,’ ‘special,’ and ‘distinct’ role in the
initiative process—one involving both authority and
responsibilities that differ from other supporters of
the measure. True enough—but only when it comes to the
process of enacting the law. Upon submitting the
proposed initiative to the attorney general,
petitioners became the official “proponents” of
Proposition 8. As such, they were responsible
for collecting the signatures required to qualify the
measure for the ballot. After those signatures were
collected, the proponents alone had the right to file
the measure with election officials to put it on the
ballot. Petitioners also possessed control over the
arguments in favor of the initiative that would appear
in California’s ballot pamphlets.
But once Proposition 8 was approved
by the voters, the measure became “a duly enacted
constitutional amendment or statute.”
Petitioners have no role—special or otherwise—in the
enforcement of Proposition 8.
Article III standing “is not to be placed in the hands of ‘concerned bystanders,’ who will use it simply as a ‘vehicle for the vindication of value interests.’ ” No matter how deeply committed petitioners may be to upholding Proposition 8 or how “zealous [their] advocacy,” that is not a “particularized” interest sufficient to create a case or controversy under Article III.
Without a judicially cognizable interest of their own, petitioners attempt to invoke that of someone else. They assert that even if they have no cognizable interest in appealing the District Court’s judgment, the State of California does, and they may assert that interest on the State’s behalf. It is, however, a “fundamental restriction on our authority” that “[i]n the ordinary course, a litigant must assert his or her own legal rights and interests, and cannot rest a claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties.” There are “certain, limited exceptions” to that rule. But even when we have allowed litigants to assert the interests of others, the litigants themselves still “must have suffered an injury in fact, thus giving [them] a sufficiently concrete interest in the outcome of the issue in dispute....”
Both petitioners and respondents
seek support from dicta in Arizonans for Official
English v. Arizona. The
plaintiff in Arizonans for Official English filed a
constitutional challenge to an Arizona ballot
initiative declaring English “ ‘the official
language of the State of Arizona.’ ” After
the District Court declared the initiative
unconstitutional, Arizona’s Governor announced that
she would not pursue an appeal. Instead, the principal
sponsor of the ballot initiative—the Arizonans for
Official English Committee—sought to defend the
measure in the Ninth Circuit. Analogizing the sponsors
to the Arizona Legislature, the Ninth Circuit held
that the Committee was “qualified to defend [the
initiative] on appeal.”
Before finding the case mooted by
other events, this Court expressed “grave doubts”
about the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis. We
reiterated that “[s]tanding to defend on appeal in the
place of an original defendant . . . demands
that the litigant possess ‘a direct stake in the
outcome.’ ” We recognized that a legislator
authorized by state law to represent the State’s
interest may satisfy standing requirements, but noted
that the Arizona committee and its members were “not
elected representatives, and we [we]re aware of no
Arizona law appointing initiative sponsors as agents
of the people of Arizona to defend, in lieu of public
officials, the constitutionality of initiatives made
law of the State.”
Petitioners argue that, by virtue of the California Supreme Court’s decision, they are authorized to act “ ‘as agents of the people’ of California.” But that Court never described petitioners as “agents of the people,” or of anyone else. Nor did the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit asked—and the California Supreme Court answered—only whether petitioners had “the authority to assert the State’s interest in the initiative’s validity.” All that the California Supreme Court decision stands for is that, so far as California is concerned, petitioners may argue in defense of Proposition 8. This “does not mean that the proponents become de facto public officials”; the authority they enjoy is “simply the authority to participate as parties in a court action and to assert legal arguments in defense of the state’s interest in the validity of the initiative measure.” That interest is by definition a generalized one, and it is precisely because proponents assert such an interest that they lack standing under our precedents.
And petitioners are plainly not agents of the State—“formal” or otherwise.... Neither the California Supreme Court nor the Ninth Circuit ever described the proponents as agents of the State, and they plainly do not qualify as such.
The dissent eloquently recounts the California Supreme Court’s reasons for deciding that state law authorizes petitioners to defend Proposition 8. We do not “disrespect” or “disparage” those reasons. Nor do we question California’s sovereign right to maintain an initiative process, or the right of initiative proponents to defend their initiatives in California courts, where Article III does not apply. But as the dissent acknowledges, standing in federal court is a question of federal law, not state law. And no matter its reasons, the fact that a State thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override our settled law to the contrary.
The Article III requirement that a party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court seek relief for a personal, particularized injury serves vital interests going to the role of the Judiciary in our system of separated powers. “Refusing to entertain generalized grievances ensures that . . . courts exercise power that is judicial in nature,” and ensures that the Federal Judiciary respects “the proper—and properly limited—role of the courts in a democratic society.” States cannot alter that role simply by issuing to private parties who otherwise lack standing a ticket to the federal courthouse.
We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.
Because petitioners have not satisfied their burden to demonstrate standing to appeal the judgment of the District Court, the Ninth Circuit was without jurisdiction to consider the appeal. The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Thomas, Justice Alito, and Justice Sotomayor join, dissenting.
The Court’s opinion is correct to state, and the Supreme Court of California was careful to acknowledge, that a proponent’s standing to defend an initiative in federal court is a question of federal law. Proper resolution of the justiciability question requires, in this case, a threshold determination of state law. The state-law question is how California defines and elaborates the status and authority of an initiative’s proponents who seek to intervene in court to defend the initiative after its adoption by the electorate. Those state-law issues have been addressed in a meticulous and unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court of California.
Under California law, a proponent has the authority to appear in court and assert the State’s interest in defending an enacted initiative when the public officials charged with that duty refuse to do so. The State deems such an appearance essential to the integrity of its initiative process. Yet the Court today concludes that this state-defined status and this state-conferred right fall short of meeting federal requirements because the proponents cannot point to a formal delegation of authority that tracks the requirements of the Restatement of Agency. But the State Supreme Court’s definition of proponents’ powers is binding on this Court. And that definition is fully sufficient to establish the standing and adversity that are requisites for justiciability under Article III of the United States Constitution.
In my view Article III does not require California, when deciding who may appear in court to defend an initiative on its behalf, to comply with the Restatement of Agency or with this Court’s view of how a State should make its laws or structure its government. The Court’s reasoning does not take into account the fundamental principles or the practical dynamics of the initiative system in California, which uses this mechanism to control and to bypass public officials—the same officials who would not defend the initiative, an injury the Court now leaves unremedied. The Court’s decision also has implications for the 26 other States that use an initiative or popular referendum system and which, like California, may choose to have initiative proponents stand in for the State when public officials decline to defend an initiative in litigation. In my submission, the Article III requirement for a justiciable case or controversy does not prevent proponents from having their day in court....