Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968)

2012-06-22 09:35:19

Case litigation requires courts to possess the authority to hear the case (‘‘justiciability’’). An important justiciability requirement is that litigants have ‘‘standing’’ (be able to show injury to a protected interest) to sue. One of the most important cases involving standing is Flast v. Cohen, where the Supreme Court determined that taxpayers have standing to sue the government to prevent unconstitutional uses of taxpayer funds.

In Flast, taxpayers challenged federal legislation financing the purchase of textbooks for religious schools, arguing such use of tax money violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether petitioners’ status as taxpayers gave them standing to sue in federal courts. Using a two-part test, the Court held (eight to one) that petitioners had standing to pursue the lawsuit.

Flast clarified an earlier ruling in Frothingham v. Mellon (262 U.S. 447 [1923]), which prevented taxpayers from having standing to sue the federal government if the only injury was an anticipated tax increase. The Court explained that Frothingham did not absolutely bar taxpayer suits but prevented courts from serving as forums for generalized taxpayer grievances. The Flast decision allows taxpayer suits against the federal government if the taxpayer can show: (1) a logical relationship between their taxpayer status and the challenged statute; and (2) that the challenged enactment exceeds constitutional limitations imposed on congressional taxing and spending power. Although the Burger and Rehnquist Courts have restricted standing requirements, taxpayer suits are commonly used today to contest the constitutionality of government actions.


References and Further Reading

  • Dorf, Michael, ed. Constitutional Law Stories: Constitutional Law. New York: Foundation Press, 2004.
  • Miller, Robert T., and Ronald B. Flowers. Toward Benevolent Neutrality: Church, State, and the Supreme Court. 4th Ed. Waco, TX: Markham Press, 1992.
  • Tribe, Laurence H. American Constitutional Law. 3rd Ed. New York: West Publishing Company, 1999.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968)
  • Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923)