Summary of Flast v. Cohen
Citation: 392 U.S. 83 (1968)
Relevant Facts: Florance Flast and others objected to federal expenditures ultimately destined for sectarian religious schools. They brought suit against Wibur Cohen, then Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, alleging that use of federal funds generated through taxation to support religious institutions violated the Establishment Clause. Flast and the other Plaintiffs attacked, specifically, the constitutionality of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to the extent it financed the purchase of materials for religious schools. Flast sought a declaration that such expenditures were not authorized by the Act or, in the alternative, that the Act was unconstitutional if it allowed expenditure of funds to benefit religious institutions. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Cohen, concluding that Flast and the other plaintiffs lacked standing premised on their status as taxpayers alone, relying on Frothingham v. Mellon (262 U.S. 447 (1923), holding that taxpayer status alone is insufficient to confer standing as plaintiffs must allege particularized injury).
Issue: Do Petitioners, based on their status as taxpayers, have Article III standing to challenge the constitutionality of Congressional expenditures?
Holding: Yes, taxpayers have standing to challenge Congressional action where they can allege a link between their taxpayer status and the challenged enactment. Furthermore, taxpayer Plaintiffs must demonstrate that the Congressional action in question exceeds specific constitutional limitations rather than being generally beyond Congress’s Article I powers.
Reasoning: Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court. First, Chief Justice Warren explained that taxpayer status alone is not an absolute bar to Article III standing requirements. Rather, plaintiffs may meet standing requirements based on their status as taxpayers so long as other, traditional standing requirements are met. First, plaintiffs must demonstrate a personal stake in the outcome of the litigation. While taxpayer status may be sufficient to confer standing, plaintiffs must also allege more than generalized grievances. When, as here, plaintiffs allege that Congressional action exceeds a direct limitation on Congressional authority (here the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment), they must prove a link between their status as taxpayers and the injury allege. Standing should be limited when taxpayers can only show incidental expenditure of funds in furtherance of regulatory statutes. However, when as here Plaintiffs allege an essential nexus between Congressional action and specific limitations on Congressional authority, they have satisfied standing requirements. In this case, Flast and others claim that Congress, through exercise of its broad power to tax and spend, has violated the First Amendment limitations of the Establishment Clause and have therefore alleged a constitutional violation in which they have a sufficient stake to confer standing. The Court distinguished Frothingham, explaining that the grievances here are not generalized but sufficiently concrete to invoke federal jurisdiction and satisfy standing requirements. The Court expressed no opinion on the merits of the underlying suite, limiting its holding to the issue of standing alone.
Concurrence: Justice Douglas concurred, writing separately to argue that the Court should overrule Frothingham directly. Justice Douglas argued that taxpayers should be free to challenge Congressional action in violation of the First Amendment, just as citizens are free to vindicate their Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment rights in Federal Court. Justice Douglas pointed out that most Congressional action in political and nonjusticiable, therefore concluding that there was little danger of an avalanche of litigation in liberalizing taxpayer standing requirements. Justice Stewart concurred, writing separately to point out that the majority’s holding was, in his view, properly limited to Establishment Clause cases. Justice Fortas concurred, agreeing with Justice Stewart that the holding in this case should be properly limited to Establishment Clause cases.
Dissent: Justice Harlan dissented, arguing that the majority failed to provide any perceivable limitation on newly liberalized standing requirements. Justice Harlan argued that taxpayers should always be free to challenge federal taxation, by way of defense to enforcement actions, and would be more sympathetic to cases in which plaintiffs allege that Congressional action affected them directly (i.e. raised their taxes). However, Justice Harlan pointed out that the recent history of the Court aptly demonstrated that Establishment Clause issues were already capable of judicial resolution without the need to resort to allowing a new class of plaintiffs, in particular where the new class of plaintiffs was seemingly without limitation.
Conclusion: Taxpayers may bring suit in Federal Court to challenge Congressional action, and have standing to do so, where they can allege that Congress has violated a specific limitation on Congressional authority, such as the Establishment Clause in this case.