Adverse Litigants

The presence of adverse litigants with real interests to contend for is a standard which has been stressed in numerous cases,375 and the requirement implicates a number of complementary factors making up a justiciable suit. The requirement was one of the decisive factors, if not the decisive one, in Muskrat v. United States,376 in which the Court struck down a statute authorizing certain named Indians to bring a test suit against the United States to determine the validity of a law affecting the allocation of Indian lands. Attorney’s fees of both sides were to be paid out of tribal funds deposited in the United States Treasury. “The judicial power,” said the Court, “. . . is the right to determine actual controversies arising between adverse litigants, duly instituted in courts of proper jurisdiction. . . . It is true the United States is made a defendant to this action, but it has no interest adverse to the claimants. The object is not to assert a property right as against the government, or to demand compensation for alleged wrongs because of action upon its part. The whole purpose of the law is to determine the constitutional validity of this class of legislation, in a suit not arising between parties concerning a property right necessarily involved in the decision in question, but in a proceeding against the government in its sovereign capacity, and concerning which the only judgment required is to settle the doubtful character of the legislation in question.”377

Concerns regarding adversity also arise when the executive branch chooses to enforce, but not defend in court, federal statutes that it has concluded are unconstitutional. In United States v. Windsor,378 the Court considered the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which excludes same-sex partners from the definition of “spouse” as used in federal statutes.379 DOMA was challenged by the surviving member of a same-sex couple (married in Canada), who was seeking to claim a spousal federal estate tax exemption. Although the executive branch continued to deny the exemption, it also declined to defend the statute based on doubts as to whether it would survive scrutiny under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Consequently, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives (BLAG)380 intervened to defend the statute. The Court held that, despite the decision not to defend, the failure of the United States to provide a refund to the taxpayer constituted an injury sufficient to establish standing, leaving only “prudential” limitations on judicial review at issue.

381 The Court concluded that the “prudential” concerns were outweighed by the presence of BLAG to offer an adversarial presentation of the issue, the legal uncertainty that would be caused by dismissing the case, and the concern that the executive branch’s assessment of the constitutionality of the statute would be immunized from judicial review.382

Collusive and Feigned Suits.

Adverse litigants are lacking in those suits in which two parties have gotten together to bring a friendly suit to settle a question of interest to them. Thus, in Lord v. Veazie,383 the latter had executed a deed to the former warranting that he had certain rights claimed by a third person, and suit was instituted to decide the “dispute.” Declaring that “the whole proceeding was in contempt of the court, and highly reprehensible,” the Court observed: “The contract set out in the pleadings was made for the purpose of instituting this suit. . . . The plaintiff and defendant are attempting to procure the opinion of this court upon a question of law, in the decision of which they have a common interest opposed to that of other persons, who are not parties to the suit. . . . And their conduct is the more objectionable, because they have brought up the question upon a statement of facts agreed upon between themselves . . . and upon a judgment pro forma entered by their mutual consent, without any actual judicial decision. . . .”384 “Whenever,” said the Court in another case, “in pursuance of an honest and actual antagonistic assertion of rights by one individual against another, there is presented a question involving the validity of any act of any legislature, State or federal, and the decision necessarily rests on the competency of the legislature to so enact, the court must . . . determine whether the act be constitutional or not; but such an exercise of power is the ultimate and supreme function of courts. It is legitimate only in the last resort, and as a necessity in the determination of real, earnest and vital controversy between individuals. It never was the thought that, by means of a friendly suit, a party beaten in the legislature could transfer to the courts an inquiry as to the constitutionality of the legislative act.”385 Yet several widely known constitutional decisions have been rendered in cases in which friendly parties contrived to have the actions brought and in which the suits were supervised and financed by one side.386 There are also instances in which there may not be in fact an adverse party at certain stages; that is, instances when the parties do not actually disagree, but where the Supreme Court and the lower courts are empowered to adjudicate.387

Stockholder Suits.

Moreover, adversity in parties has often been found in suits by stockholders against their corporation in which the constitutionality of a statute or a government action is drawn in question, even though one may suspect that the interests of plaintiffs and defendant are not all that dissimilar. Thus, in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co.,388 the Court sustained the jurisdiction of a district court which had enjoined the company from paying an income tax even though the suit was brought by a stockholder against the company, thereby circumventing a statute which forbade the maintenance in any court of a suit to restrain the collection of any tax.389 Subsequently, the Court sustained jurisdiction in cases brought by a stockholder to restrain a company from investing its funds in farm loan bonds issued by federal land banks390 and by preferred stockholders against a utility company and the TVA to enjoin the performance of contracts between the company and TVA on the ground that the statute creating it was unconstitutional.391 Perhaps most notorious was Carter v. Carter Coal Co.,392 in which the president of the company brought suit against the company and its officials, among whom was Carter’s father, a vice president of the company, and in which the Court entertained the suit and decided the case on the merits.393

Footnotes

375
Lord v. Veazie, 49 U.S. (8 How.) 251 (1850); Chicago & Grand Trunk Ry. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339 (1892); South Spring Hill Gold Mining Co. v. Amador Medean Gold Mining Co., 145 U.S. 300 (1892); California v. San Pablo & T.R.R., 149 U.S. 308 (1893); Tregea v. Modesto Irrigation District, 164 U.S. 179 (1896); Lampasas v. Bell, 180 U.S. 276 (1901); Smith v. Indiana, 191 U.S. 138 (1903); Braxton County Court v. West Virginia, 208 U.S. 192 (1908); Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346 (1911); United States v. Johnson, 319 U.S. 302 (1943); Moore v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 47 (1971). [Back to text]
376
219 U.S. 346 (1911). [Back to text]
377
219 U.S. at 361–62. The Indians obtained the sought-after decision the following year by the simple expedient of suing to enjoin the Secretary of the Interior from enforcing the disputed statute. Gritts v. Fisher, 224 U.S. 640 (1912). Other cases have involved similar problems, but they resulted in decisions on the merits. E.g., Cherokee Intermarriage Cases, 203 U.S. 76 (1906); La Abra Silver Mining Co. v. United States, 175 U.S. 423, 455–463 (1899); South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 335 (1966); but see id. at 357 (Justice Black dissenting). The principal effect of Muskrat was to put in doubt for several years the validity of any sort of declaratory judgment provision in federal law. [Back to text]
378
570 U.S. ___, No. 12–307, slip op. (2013). [Back to text]
379
Pub. L. 104–199, § 3, 110 Stat. 2419, 1 U.S.C. § 7. [Back to text]
380
The BLAG is a standing body of the House, created by rule, consisting of members of the House Leadership and authorized to direct the House Office of the General Counsel to file suit on its behalf in state or federal court. [Back to text]
381
Windsor, slip op. at 6–7. [Back to text]
382
Id. at 10–13. [Back to text]
383
49 U.S. (8 How.) 251 (1850). [Back to text]
384
49 U.S. at 254–55. [Back to text]
385
Chicago & G.T. Ry. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339, 345 (1892). [Back to text]
386
E.g., Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 171 (1796); Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cr.) 87 (1810); Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857); cf. 1 C. Warren, supra at 147, 392–95; 2 id. at 279–82. In Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968), the Court adjudicated on the merits a challenge to the constitutionality of criminal treatment of chronic alcoholics although the findings of the trial court, agreed to by the parties, appeared rather to be “the premises of a syllogism transparently designed to bring this case” within the confines of an earlier enunciated constitutional principle. But adversity arguably still existed. [Back to text]
387
Examples are naturalization cases, Tutun v. United States, 270 U.S. 568 (1926), entry of judgment by default or on a plea of guilty, In re Metropolitan Ry. Receivership, 208 U.S. 90 (1908), and consideration by the Court of cases in which the Solicitor General confesses error below. Cf. Young v. United States, 315 U.S. 257, 258–259 (1942); Casey v. United States, 343 U.S. 808 (1952); Rosengart v. Laird, 404 U.S. 908 (1972) (Justice White dissenting). See also Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40, 58–59 (1968). [Back to text]
388
157 U.S. 429 (1895). The first injunction suit by a stockholder to restrain a corporation from paying a tax was apparently Dodge v. Woolsey, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 331 (1856). See also Brushaber v. Union Pac. R.R., 240 U.S. 1 (1916). [Back to text]
389
Cf. Cheatham v. United States, 92 U.S. 85 (1875); Snyder v. Marks, 109 U.S. 189 (1883). [Back to text]
390
Smith v. Kansas City Title & Trust Co., 255 U.S. 180 (1921). [Back to text]
391
Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288 (1936). See id. at 341 (Justice Brandeis dissenting in part). [Back to text]
392
298 U.S. 238 (1936). [Back to text]
393
Stern, The Commerce Clause and the National Economy, 59 HARV. L. REV. 645, 667–668 (1948) (detailing the framing of the suit). [Back to text]