United States v. Richardson

418 U.S. 166 (1974)

(Taxpayers and Standing)


Key Takeaway

Standing requires more than “generalized grievances.”

United States v. Richardson


Respondent brought this suit in the United States District Court on a complaint in which he recites attempts to obtain from the Government information concerning detailed expenditures of the Central Intelligence Agency. According to the complaint, respondent wrote to the Government Printing Office in 1967 and requested that he be provided with the documents "published by the Government in compliance with Article I, section 9, clause (7) of the United States Constitution." The Fiscal Service of the Bureau of Accounts of the Department of the Treasury replied, explaining that it published the document known as the Combined Statement of Receipts, Expenditures, and Balances of the United States Government. Several copies of the monthly and daily reports of the office were sent with the letter. Respondent then wrote to the same office and, quoting part of the CIA Act, asked whether this statute did not "cast reflection upon the authenticity of the Treasury's Statement." He also inquired as to how he could receive further information on the expenditures of the CIA. The Bureau of Accounts replied stating that it had no other available information.

In another letter, respondent asserted that the CIA Act was repugnant to the Constitution and requested that the Treasury Department seek an opinion of the Attorney General. The Department answered declining to seek such an opinion and this suit followed. Respondent's complaint asked the court to "issue a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants from publishing their 'Combined Statement of Receipts, Expenditures and Balances of the United States Government' and representing it as the fulfillment of the mandates of Article I Section 9 Clause 7 until same fully complies with those mandates." In essence, the respondent asked the federal court to declare unconstitutional that provision of the Central Intelligence Agency Act which permits the Agency to account for its expenditures "solely on the certificate of the Director . . .." The only injury alleged by respondent was that he "cannot obtain a document that sets out the expenditures and receipts" of the CIA but on the contrary was "asked to accept a fraudulent document." The District Court granted a motion for dismissal on the ground respondent lacked standing under Flast v. Cohen, and that the subject matter raised political questions not suited for judicial disposition.

The Court of Appeals sitting en banc, with three judges dissenting, reversed, holding that the respondent had standing to bring this action. The majority relied chiefly on Flast v. Cohen, and its two-tier test that taxpayer standing rests on a showing of (a) a "logical link" between the status as a taxpayer and the challenged legislative enactment, i. e., an attack on an enactment under the Taxing and Spending Clause of Art. I, § 8, of the Constitution; and (b) a "nexus" between the plaintiff's status and a specific constitutional limitation imposed on the taxing and spending power. While noting that the respondent did not directly attack an appropriations act, as did the plaintiff in Flast, the Court of Appeals concluded that the CIA statute challenged by the respondent was "integrally related," to his ability to challenge the appropriations since he could not question an appropriation about which he had no knowledge. The Court of Appeals seemed to rest its holding on an assumption that this case was a prelude to a later case challenging, on the basis of information obtained in this suit, some particular appropriation for or expenditure of the CIA; respondent stated no such an intention in his complaint. The dissenters took a different approach urging denial of standing principally because, in their view, respondent alleged no specific injury but only a general interest common to all members of the public.


Whether the respondent has standing to bring an action as a federal taxpayer 1alleging that certain provisions concerning public reporting of expenditures under the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, violate Art. I, § 9, cl. 7, of the Constitution which provides:

"No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time."


We conclude that respondent lacks standing to maintain a suit for the relief sought and we reverse.

"The party who invokes the [judicial] power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally."

When the Court addressed the question of standing in Flast, Mr. Chief Justice Warren traced what he described as the "confusion" following Frothingham as to whether the Court had announced a constitutional doctrine barring suits by taxpayers challenging federal expenditures as unconstitutional or simply a policy rule of judicial self-restraint.

"The 'gist of the question of standing' is whether the party seeking relief has 'alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness . . . upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions.'" 

The Court then announced a two-pronged standing test which requires allegations: (a) challenging an enactment under the Taxing and Spending Clause of Art. I, § 8, of the Constitution; and (b) claiming that the challenged enactment exceeds specific constitutional limitations imposed on the taxing and spending power. While the "impenetrable barrier to suits against Acts of Congress brought by individuals who can assert only the interest of federal taxpayers,"  had been slightly lowered, the Court made clear it was reaffirming the principle of Frothingham precluding a taxpayer's use of "a federal court as a forum in which to air his generalized grievances about the conduct of government or the allocation of power in the Federal System." The narrowness of that holding is emphasized

"In concluding that the appellants therefore have standing to sue, we do not undermine the salutary principle, established by Frothingham and reaffirmed today, that a taxpayer may not 'employ a federal court as a forum in which to air his generalized grievances about the conduct of government or the allocation of power in the Federal System.'"

We need not and do not reach the merits of the constitutional attack on the statute; our inquiry into the "substantive issues" is for the limited purpose indicated above. The mere recital of the respondent's claims and an examination of the statute under attack demonstrate how far he falls short of the standing criteria of Flast Although the status he rests on is that he is a taxpayer, his challenge is not addressed to the taxing or spending power, but to the statutes regulating the CIA, specifically 50 U. S. C. § 403j (b). That section provides different accounting and reporting requirements and procedures for the CIA, as is also done with respect to other governmental agencies dealing in confidential areas.

Respondent makes no claim that appropriated funds are being spent in violation of a "specific constitutional limitation upon the . . . taxing and spending power . . .." Rather, he asks the courts to compel the Government to give him information on precisely how the CIA spends its funds. Thus there is no "logical nexus" between the asserted status of taxpayer and the claimed failure of the Congress to require the Executive to supply a more detailed report of the expenditures of that agency.

The respondent's claim is that without detailed information on CIA expenditures -- and hence its activities -- he cannot intelligently follow the actions of Congress or the Executive, nor can he properly fulfill his obligations as a member of the electorate in voting for candidates seeking national office. 

This is surely the kind of a generalized grievance described in both Frothingham and Flast since the impact on him is plainly undifferentiated and "common to all members of the public."  While we can hardly dispute that this respondent has a genuine interest in the use of funds and that his interest may be prompted by his status as a taxpayer, he has not alleged that, as a taxpayer, he is in danger of suffering any particular concrete injury as a result of the operation of this statute.

Ex parte Levitt, supra, is especially instructive. There Levitt sought to challenge the validity of the commission of a Supreme Court Justice who had been nominated and confirmed as such while he was a member of the Senate. Levitt alleged that the appointee had voted for an increase in the emoluments provided by Congress for Justices of the Supreme Court during the term for which he was last elected to the United States Senate. The claim was that the appointment violated the explicit prohibition of Art. I, § 6, cl. 2, of the Constitution. The Court disposed of Levitt's claim, stating:

"It is an established principle that to entitle a private individual to invoke the judicial power to determine the validity of executive or legislative action he must show that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining a direct injury as the result of that action and it is not sufficient that he has merely a general interest common to all members of the public." 

It can be argued that if respondent is not permitted to litigate this issue, no one can do so. In a very real sense, the absence of any particular individual or class to litigate these claims gives support to the argument that the subject matter is committed to the surveillance of Congress, and ultimately to the political process. Any other conclusion would mean that the Founding Fathers intended to set up something in the nature of an Athenian democracy or a New England town meeting to oversee the conduct of the National Government by means of lawsuits in federal courts. The Constitution created a representative Government with the representatives directly responsible to their constituents at stated periods of two, four, and six years; that the Constitution does not afford a judicial remedy does not, of course, completely disable the citizen who is not satisfied with the "ground rules" established by the Congress for reporting expenditures of the Executive Branch. 

As our society has become more complex, our numbers more vast, our lives more varied, and our resources more strained, citizens increasingly request the intervention of the courts on a greater variety of issues than at any period of our national development.


The acceptance of new categories of judicially cognizable injury has not eliminated the basic principle that to invoke judicial power the claimant must have a "personal stake in the outcome," or a "particular, concrete injury,” or "a direct injury,"; in short, something more than "generalized grievances. Respondent has failed to meet these fundamental tests; accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is



Court Syllabus

Appellee, a resident of Vermont, was allowed to take, and passed, the New Hampshire bar examination. But pursuant to Rule 42 of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which limits bar admission to state residents, she was not permitted to be sworn in. After the New Hampshire Supreme Court denied appellee's request that an exception to the Rule be made in her case, she filed an action in Federal District Court, alleging that Rule 42 violates the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Art. IV, § 2, of the United States Constitution. The District Court agreed and granted appellee's motion for a summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Rule 42 violates the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Art. IV, § 2. Pp. 279-288.

(a) Derived, like the Commerce Clause, from the fourth of the Articles of Confederation, the Privileges and Immunities Clause was intended to create a national economic union. "[One] of the privileges which the Clause guarantees to citizens of State A is that of doing business in State B on terms of substantial equality with the citizens of that State." Moreover, although a lawyer is "an officer of the court," he does not hold a position that can be entrusted only to a "full-fledged member of the political community" and thus is not an "officer" of the State in any political sense. Therefore, a nonresident's interest in practicing law is a "privilege" protected by the Clause.

(b) A State may discriminate against nonresidents only where its reasons are "substantial" and the difference in treatment bears a close or substantial relationship to those reasons. None of the reasons offered by appellant for its refusal to admit nonresidents to the bar -- nonresidents would be less likely to keep abreast of local rules and procedures, to behave ethically, to be available for court proceedings, and to do pro bono and other volunteer work in the State -- meets the test of "substantiality," and the means chosen do not bear the necessary relationship to the State's objectives.

How the Justices Voted

Majority: Burger, joined by White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist

Concurrence: Powell

Dissent: Douglas

Dissent: Brennan

Dissent: Stewart, joined by Marshall