ArtIII.S2.C1.6.9.2 Zone of Interests Test

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

One type of prudential standing limitation that may counsel against the exercise of jurisdiction over a dispute involves the application of the “zone of interests” test, which asks whether the litigant’s grievance arguably1 falls within the scope of the statute or constitutional provision in question.2 This test is “not meant to be especially demanding,” 3 and the Supreme Court has sometimes applied it liberally, finding it to be satisfied even when Congress has not specifically intended to protect a particular litigant’s interests.4 For example, the Court determined that irrigation districts and operators of ranches had prudential standing to sue under a citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act—a statute directed primarily at furthering environmental protection—to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)'s enforcement of the Act.5 The Court found that the litigants had standing even though they alleged that the FWS’s actions would cause them economic (and not environmental) harm by reducing the amount of water they would receive from a federal water-management project for their activities.6 And the Court also concluded that tenants of an apartment complex had prudential standing to sue their landlord under the Fair Housing Act for allegedly discriminatory rental practices.7 The Court reached this result even though the tenants themselves were not directly subject to such practices because Congress intended to confer standing on “all in the same housing unit who are injured by racial discrimination,” such that depriving the residents of the benefits of interracial association qualified as a cognizable injury under the Act.8

Although the Supreme Court has often categorized the “zone of interests” test as a prudential limitation on the Court’s exercise of its jurisdiction, in the recently decided case Lexmark, International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, stated that “it does not belong there” and that a court applying the test should use traditional tools of statutory interpretation to ascertain whether a plaintiff has a right to sue under a particular provision creating a substantive cause of action.9 Thus, the Court may have ceased to regard the zone-of-interests test as an aspect of prudential standing, although it is unclear how this change to the doctrine will practically affect the Court’s application of the “zone of interests” test in future cases.

Nat’l Credit Union Admin. v. First Nat’l Bank & Trust Co., 522 U.S. 479, 488–99 (1998) ( “Our prior cases, therefore, have consistently held that for a plaintiff’s interests to be arguably within the ‘zone of interests’ to be protected by a statute, there does not have to be an ‘indication of congressional purpose to benefit the would-be plaintiff.’” ) (citation omitted). back
Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 162 (1997) ( “[A] plaintiff’s grievance must arguably fall within the zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision or constitutional guarantee invoked in the suit.” ) (citation omitted). back
Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians v. Patchak, 567 U.S. 209, 225 (2012). back
See Thompson v. N. Am. Stainless, 562 U.S. 170, 178 (2011) (concluding that a man who alleged that he had been fired in retaliation for his fiance (and coworker)'s sex discrimination charge had standing to sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as his claim fell within the zone of interests that Congress sought to protect in the Act because the “purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions” ); FEC v. Akins, 524 U.S. 11, 19 (1998) ( “History associates the word ‘aggrieved’ [in a citizen-suit provision] with a congressional intent to cast the standing net broadly—beyond the common-law interests and substantive statutory rights upon which ‘prudential’ standing traditionally rested.” ); Clarke v. Sec. Indus. Ass’n, 479 U.S. 388, 399 (1987) ( “In cases where the plaintiff is not itself the subject of the contested regulatory action, the test denies a right of review if the plaintiff’s interests are so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit.” ). But see Air Courier Conference of Am. v. Am. Postal Workers Union, 498 U.S. 517, 524–25 (1991) (finding that postal workers could not challenge a Postal Service regulation employing the use of private couriers in certain situations based on their interest in job opportunities)); Block v. Cmty. Nutrition Inst., 467 U.S. 340, 347 (1984) (examining a statutory scheme in its entirety to determine that Congress intended to preclude ultimate consumers of dairy products from obtaining judicial review of milk market orders issued by the Secretary of Agriculture under the authority of the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937). back
Bennett, 520 U.S. at 166. back
Id. back
Trafficante v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 409 U.S. 205, 212 (1972). back
Id. back
572 U.S. 118, 127 (2014). See also, e.g., Bank of Am. Corp. v. City of Miami, No. 15-1111, slip op. at 5 (U.S. May 1, 2017) (confirming that the “zone of interests” test amounts to an inquiry into whether a statutory provision conferring a cause of action encompasses the litigant’s claim). back