For decades, legal academics have complained about a conflict between history and the doctrine of Article III standing. First in Spokeo v. Robins (2016) and then notably in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez (2021), Justice Clarence Thomas presented a halfway resolution. Thomas grounded Article III standing in a historical distinction between private and public rights. Suits for violations of private rights would require no showing of concrete injury-in-fact. Suits for violations of public rights would require the showing of special damage, a term borrowed from the public nuisance tort.
This Article questions this effective retention of injury-in-fact for public rights actions. In Part I, I explain Justice Thomas’s nuanced approach to Article III standing. In Part II, I investigate old English and early American materials on special damage to flesh out the meaning of Thomas’s requirement for public rights standing. I find a lack of historical consensus on the content of the special damage standard. Some materials go this way, others go that way, and still others another way. The materials do not align on a precise standard, making it difficult, either as a matter of 1788 original meaning or later liquidation, to operationalize Thomas’s special damage requirement. In Part III, I argue that there are good reasons to doubt that the requirement of special damage is constitutionally relevant to the original meaning of Article III. The Framers did not discuss special damage in relation to Article III. The traditional rationale for the specific damage requirement does not have constitutional significance. And it seems implausible that the Constitution incorporated a legal doctrine in such flux without textual indication. In conclusion, I critique the current Court’s lack of attention to original meaning for Article III standing.
Justice Thomas (Stetson University)