In siding with President Trump in a lawsuit over his financial conflicts of interest, a federal court of appeals invoked a controversial legal principle that undermines the judiciary’s checking and balancing role. According to the court, Maryland and the District of Columbia lacked “standing” to sue the President. The court therefore dismissed the suit, without deciding whether the President was breaking the law. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has invoked the standing doctrine many times to block the public from holding Presidents and other government officials accountable for their actions.
In the suit against Trump, Maryland and the District of Columbia argued that the President’s ownership of the Trump International Hotel allowed him to profit from his elected office, in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses. Those provisions are designed to prevent states and foreign governments from using financial enticements to influence government action.
While experts disagree about the interpretation of the Emoluments Clauses and whether President Trump is violating them, the appellate court’s decision won’t allow those questions to be answered. When a case is dismissed for lack of standing, it doesn’t matter whether the defendant is violating the law. The court never gets the chance to decide the merits of the case.
In other standing cases, the Supreme Court refused to intervene when past administrations gave tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private schools, donated government property to religiously affiliated universities, or opened national park lands to development. Even though the Court is responsible for ensuring that the law can be enforced, it stays its hand in standing cases.
In such cases, reasons the Court, the plaintiff does not have a meaningful stake in the matter. And there are cases when that is true. If the government violates a person’s rights, it generally should be up to that person, not a stranger, to decide whether to file a lawsuit. But in many standing cases, the Court’s logic means that no one can sue over an elected official’s violation of the Constitution.
Letting Presidents and other officials escape oversight is fundamentally inconsistent with the principle of checks and balances. Inadequate oversight means that Presidents really can be above the law. Fortunately, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to correct the holding in this case.