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D.C. FEDN. OF CIVIC ASSNS. v. AIRIS

October 18, 1967

D.C. FEDERATION OF CIVIC ASSOCIATIONS et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Thomas F. AIRIS et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

 This is an action brought by a large number of plaintiffs of different kinds and types, joined together to restrain District of Columbia highway authorities and Federal highway authorities from proceeding with the construction of four projects with Federal highway aid. The four projects consist of three highways or freeways within the boundaries of the District of Columbia and a bridge across the Potomac River, generally known as the Three Sisters Bridge. A declaratory judgment is also asked, adjudging the illegality of the steps being taken by the authorities. The matter is before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment.

 The power of the judiciary is limited to redressing individual legal rights. The courts may step in only if a private right of some individual, distinguished from the rights of the public as a whole, is being infringed either by another individual or by the government. It is for this reason that the courts have evolved the doctrine that in order to maintain an action to set aside some activity of the government, the plaintiff must have a standing to sue, namely, that his own individual private rights that are recognized by law are being encroached upon or infringed by governmental action. In other words, the requirement of a standing to sue is not a mere matter of procedure but is a fundamental principle of substantive law, that must be maintained in full vigor in order not to weaken the structure of our free institutions.

 Mr. Justice Black, in Perkins v. Lukens Steel Co., 310 U.S. 113, 132, 60 S. Ct. 869, 879, 84 L. Ed. 1108, in holding that the plaintiffs in that case did not have standing to sue, said:

 
"Our decision that the complaining companies lack standing to sue does not rest upon a mere formality. We rest it upon reasons deeply rooted in the constitutional divisions of authority in our system of Government and the impropriety of judicial interpretations of law at the instance of those who show no more than a mere possible injury to the public."

 We, therefore, must first consider which if any of the numerous plaintiffs in this action have a standing to sue. It is well settled and was established definitively by the Supreme Court in Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447, 43 S. Ct. 597, 67 L. Ed. 1078, that a person may not maintain a suit against Federal officials to enjoin expenditure of Federal funds claimed to be illegal merely because of his status as a taxpayer or as a citizen, unless his personal private legal rights, separate and apart from those of the public, are invaded. There is an old exception to this doctrine in respect to municipal corporations. Many jurisdictions in this country permit a taxpayer of a municipality to bring suit to enjoin an illegal expenditure of municipal funds. This doctrine has been adopted in the District of Columbia in Roberts v. Bradfield, 12 App.D.C. 453. The Supreme Court in the Frothingham case, 262 U.S. at page 486, 262 U.S. 447, 43 S. Ct. 597, 67 L. Ed. 1078, recognizes this exception and refers to Roberts v. Bradfield as being the law of the District of Columbia, without approving or disapproving it, although it expressly states that there are decisions in other jurisdictions to the contrary. Under the circumstances, the Court recognizes it to be the law of the District of Columbia Circuit that a taxpayer of the District of Columbia may maintain suit in order to restrain the expenditure of municipal funds for an object claimed to be illegal or in a manner claimed to be unlawful. This doctrine, however, does not extend to the Federal Government and, consequently, such an action may not be maintained as against Federal officials but must be solely restricted to District of Columbia officials.

 The Court deplores the fact that one of the plaintiffs is the Central Committee of the District of Columbia of one of the two major political parties. Obviously, the committee, presumably not being incorporated, is not an entity and has no capacity to sue or be sued. The main objection is not only that it has no capacity or standing to sue but that it was inappropriate by this indirect means to bring before the Court what seem to be political considerations. The committee should not have lent its name and counsel should not have used it for that purpose. The Court might make the observation that it is confident that neither the committee nor counsel realized the full implications of naming a political committee as a litigant in this court in matters that do not affect the committee individually. This course was, however, inappropriate and indiscreet.

 None of the classes of plaintiffs so far enumerated have a standing to sue and the action will be dismissed as to them. There remain a number of plaintiffs who sue as District of Columbia taxpayers. They have a standing to sue under the doctrine to which the Court has referred and the action will proceed as to them, limited, however, as against the District of Columbia defendants and not extending to the Federal defendants, because the latter are not subject to suit at the behest of persons suing solely as taxpayers and not asserting any individual private rights.

 The issues to be considered by the Court are merely whether the steps being taken by the District of Columbia authorities infringe any legal right of the plaintiffs and whether the District of Columbia defendants are acting within the law. If they are not taking any step forbidden by law, if they are acting in accordance with law, then the case should be determined in their favor. To repeat, the Court is not concerned and has no authority to consider the merits of the projects involved in this action. That is entirely and solely for the consideration of the Legislative and Executive branches of the Government.

 In view of the complexity of the issues, the Court determined to hold two separate hearings; the first, as to all objections or alleged infirmities affecting all four projects; and a second as to any objections that might affect individual projects. The hearing as to the objections affecting all four projects has been held and this decision is limited to them.

 The basic objection advanced by plaintiffs' counsel is that the manner in which these four projects are being handled fails to comply with the provisions of law regulating highway improvements in the District of Columbia. Plaintiffs' counsel rely principally on Title 7 of the District of Columbia Code, Sections 108, 109 and 122. These provisions require the preparation by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia of a plan for a permanent system of highways. They prescribe that a map depicting this system be filed and that it be certified to the National Capital Planning Commission for recommendations. They require the recording of the map with the Surveyor. There are other detailed prerequisites that need not be summarized in detail. It is also provided that as new highways are planned, new highway plans may be prepared in the same manner.


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