By Lisa Soronen
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first opinion in a case involving state and local government doesn’t tell us much.
He simply joined a brief, unanimous opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito involving lawsuit interveners and standing.
In a unanimous opinion in Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an intervenor must possess Article III standing—that is, they must have suffered an injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct that a court can redress—to intervene in a lawsuit as a matter of right if he or she wishes to pursue relief not requested by the plaintiff.
The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the Town of Chester.
Steven Sherman sued Chester alleging an unconstitutional taking as the town “obstructed his plans” to build a subdivision. Laroe Estates paid $2.5 million to Sherman for the property while Sherman went through the regulatory process. Laroe Estates sought to intervene in the suit.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grant nonparties the right to intervene who “claim an interest relating to the property or transaction that is the subject of the action, and is so situated that disposing of the action may as a practical matter impair or impede the movant's ability to protect its interest, unless existing parties adequately represent that interest.”
The Supreme Court assumed that Laroe Estates lacked Article III standing. The question the Supreme Court was supposed to decide was whether Laroe Estates may intervene even though it lacks standing.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Laroe Estates does not have to have standing to intervene in this lawsuit because there is a genuine case or controversy between the existing parties, in this instance Sherman and the town of Chester.
The question the court decided was whether an intervenor must possess standing to intervene as a matter of right if it wishes to pursue relief not requested by the plaintiff. Both parties and the court agreed that it “follows ineluctably from our Article III case law“ that if interveners seek different relief from plaintiffs they are required to have standing. Here, it is unclear whether Laroe Estates wants the damages Sherman requested (damages for Sherman) or damages in Laroe Estates’ name.
The court didn’t address the issue of whether interveners must possess standing to intervene as a matter of right if they seek the same relief as the plaintiff.
The SLLC amicus brief argues that allowing parties without standing to intervene prolongs and complicates litigation, ultimately making it more expensive. “The consequences are even more serious in cases involving state and local governments, as the cost of intervention also comes at the expense of taxpayers, complicating litigation (as well as settlement), and forcing government entities to continue to litigate in order to avoid allowing third-parties to control the results of the litigation, which can have significant public policy consequences.”
Sarah Shalf of the Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Program wrote the SLLC amicus brief which was joined by the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, United States Conference of Mayors and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.