Tuesday, January 24, 2023
The Supreme Court has recently offered strikingly similar answers to two seemingly disparate questions. The first concerns Article III standing to bring a case in federal court: What does it mean to show a “concrete and particularized injury in fact” that would, in part, support standing? The second concerns precedent: What does it mean for citizens to “rely” on precedents so that those prior decisions deserve stare decisis protection? The Court’s answers to each of these questions uses similar reasoning to amplify economic interests that are easy to identify and measure. Taken together, these seemingly unrelated jurisprudential developments also have an important real-world effect: they help ensure that our legal system provides the greatest level of protection possible for clear, monetary concerns, relegating more intangible individual rights to a second-class status.
Start with the Courts recent jurisprudence on Article III standing, which includes, as one of its elements, a requirement that plaintiff’s suffer a concrete and particularized injury in fact. Recent Supreme Court analyses have heightened this concreteness hurdle to enter federal courts. In Spokeo v. Robins, the Court suggested that Congress cannot create concrete injuries by fiat simply by including a statutory damages remedy in legislation. Five years later in Transunion LLC v. Ramirez, the Court again noted that an injury does not become concrete simply because Congress creates a statutory cause of action to redress it—although such Congressional action might be instructive. The Court emphasized that it would only resolve “‘a real controversy with real impact on real persons.’” In effect, these decisions emphasize the need for plaintiffs to come to the courthouse with an injury that can easily be measured, typically in real dollars and cents, before filing suit.
Meanwhile, as I have argued, the Court’s treatment of stare decisis in the landmark abortion rights case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization used similar language to signal the Justice’s willingness to overturn a broader swath of the Court’s prior decisions. According to Justice Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs, stare decisis only protects reliance interests that arise “where advance planning of great precision is most obviously a necessity”—not reliance interests that come from the kind of “unplanned activity” that may lead to an abortion. Alito also claimed that stare decisis protects only “very concrete reliance interests, like those that develop in ‘cases involving property and contract rights.’” Courts simply cannot measure, and thus cannot protect, more intangible forms of reliance that involve the organization of intimate relationships and decisions about a woman’s position in her family and community. Though this language appears content-neutral, Alito's approach to stare decisis significantly weakens precedents that protect intangible individual rights. Few citizens make contractual arrangements or economic plans based upon such precedents, and thus those precedents seems less viable in the long term.
Taken together, these trends prioritize economic interests over a number of other important interests that the legal system previously seemed to protect. Many social interests or individual rights are not the subject of economic agreements. And under the Court’s approach to both standing and stare decisis, those rights are less worthy of legal protection, on that basis alone. Put another way, if a legal interest is difficult to quantify economically, it is hardly a legal interest at all.
Without garnering much public notice, these joint emphases on concreteness create new barriers for the protection of individual rights in federal courts. They are perhaps an even greater threat to individual rights than a decision that forthrightly admits it is designed to curb those rights.
 See, e.g., Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for Separation of Church & State, Inc., 454 U.S. 461, 472 (1982); Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992).
 578 U.S. 330, 339-40 (2016); Richard L. Heppner Jr., Statutory Damages and Standing After Spokeo v. Robins, 9 ConLawNOW 125, 125 (2018).
 141 S. Ct. 2190, 2204-05 (2021).
 Id. at 2203 (quoting Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass’n, 139 S. Ct. 2067, 2103 (2019) (Gorsuch, J., concurring)).
 142 S. Ct. at 2272, 2276.
 Id. at 2272, 2277.