U.S. federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. As a Constitutional matter, all plaintiffs in federal court must have “standing.” Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737 (1984). Standing requires that plaintiff’s injury: (i) must be distinct; (ii) must be traceable to the defendant; and (iii) can be redressed by a favorable decision. Interestingly, several federal environmental laws provide that “any person” can sue alleged violators. But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that only persons that have standing can sue under these provisions—not “any” person. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992).
State courts are not bound by federal standing requirements. The recent experience in Michigan suggests that state courts may adopt (and disavow) such requirements at any time. For example, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”), enacted in 1971, provides that “any person” may sue to redress environmental harms. Mich. Comp. Laws § 324.1701 (2006). For decades, Michigan state courts agreed that “any person” could sue under MEPA.
Until 2001. In Lee v. Macomb County Board of Commissioners, 464 Mich. 726 (2001), the Michigan Supreme Court held that the federal standing requirements were generally required. In 2007, the Court specifically held in Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation v. Nestle Waters North America Inc., 479 Mich. 280 (2007), that a MEPA litigant must have standing. Lee and Michigan Citizens lasted until 2010, when, in Lansing School Education Association v. Lansing Board of Education, 487 Mich. 349 (2010), the Michigan Supreme Court directly overruled Lee and Michigan Citizens.
Today, plaintiffs in Michigan have standing if the underlying statute is sufficiently clear to confer standing on “any person.” As illustrated by these cases, Michigan courts’ decisions about this threshold issue are not immutable. Plaintiffs prosecuting citizen suits, and defendants responding to such claims, should regularly apprise themselves about any federal standing requirements in state courts.
This note is a revised excerpt of the author’s longer article, originally published in the newsletter of the American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources Constitutional Law Committee, available here.