Standing, Legal Injury Without Harm, and the Public/Private Divide

November
2017
William S. C. Goldstein

Legal injury without harm is a common phenomenon in the law. Historically, legal injury without harm was actionable for at least nominal damages, and sometimes other remedies. The same is true today of many “traditional” private rights, for which standing is uncontroversial. Novel statutory claims, on the other hand, routinely face justiciability challenges: Defendants assert that plaintiffs’ purely legal injuries are not injuries “in fact,” as required to establish an Article III case or controversy. “Injury in fact” emerges from the historical requirement of “special damages” to enforce public rights, adapted to a modern procedural world. The distinction between public and private rights is unstable, however, with the result that many novel statutory harms are treated as “public,” and thus subject to exacting justiciability analysis, when they could easily be treated as “private” rights for which legal injury without harm is sufficient for standing. Public and private act as rough proxies for “novel” and “traditional,” with the former subject to more judicial skepticism. Applying “injury in fact” this way is hard to defend as a constitutional necessity, but might make sense prudentially, depending on the novelty and legal source of value for the harm. Taxonomizing these aspects of “harm” suggests that, even with unfamiliar harms, judicial discretion over value lessens the need for exacting injury analysis.

 

This article appears in the November 2017 Issue: Volume 92, Number 5