Constitutional Law I, Pages 76–81

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife

Supreme Court of the United States, 1992


The Endangered Species Act instructs the Secretary of the Interior to make a list of endangered animals, and Section 7(a)(2) of the act requires each federal agency to insure that its actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species. The Secretary of the Interior issued a regulation stating that these obligations extended to actions taken in foreign nations, but nine years later a different Secretary of the Interior revised the regulation, reinterpreting it to only require consultation for actions taken in the United States or on the high seas. Plaintiffs then filed action against Secretary of the Interior, seeking a declaratory judgment and an injunction requiring the Secretary to promulgate a new regulation restoring the initial interpretation.

Procedural History:

  • District court denied the Secretary's motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment on the merits to plaintiffs.

  • The Eighth Circuit affirmed.


Do plaintiffs have standing to challenge the Secretary of the Interior's regulations?


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[T]he irreducible constitutional minimum of standing contains three elements.

  1. First, the plaintiff must have suffered an "injury in fact"—an invasion of a legally protected interest which is
    1. concrete and particularized; and
    2. "actual or imminent, not 'conjectural' or 'hypothetical.'"
  2. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of—the injury has to be "fairly. . . trace[able] to the challenged action of the defendant, and not . . . th[e] result [of] the independent action of some third party not before the court."
  3. Third, it must be "likely," as opposed to merely "speculative," that the injury will be "redressed by a favorable decision."


Plaintiffs' claimed injury is that the Secretary's actions increase the rate of extinction for endangered and threatened animals. The desire to use or observe an animal species is undeniably a cognizable interest, but the "injury in fact" test requires more than an injury to a cognizable interest—the plaintiff himself must be among the injured. While plaintiff Skilbred testifies that she intends to go see endangered animals which may be harmed by the government's action, mere vague future plans to see animals are not enough to support a finding of the "actual or imminent" injury required.

Besides failing to show injury, respondents also failed to demonstrate redressability. Because the agencies funding the projects were not parties to the case, the district court could only grant relief against the Secretary. This would not remedy respondents' alleged injury caused by current projects however unless they were bound by the agencies were bound by the Secretary's regulation, which is an open question. The agencies also only supply part of the funding, so reducing the funding may not even reduce the harm to the animals.

The court of appeals also held that plaintiffs had standing because they suffered a "procedural injury" by the violation of an abstract, self-contained, non-instrumental "right" to have the Executive observe the law that Congress conferred upon all people. This goes against the consistent holding that a generally available grievance about government does not state a case or controversy. The courts are solely to decide on the rights of individuals. Vindicating the public interest is the function of the other two branches. The courts should not be allowed to usurp their powers, especially those of the Executive, which has the duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." "Individual rights" do not mean public rights that have been legislatively pronounced to belong to each individual of the public.


No, plaintiffs do not have standing. Reversed and remanded.

Concurring Opinion:

Kennedy: Congress has the power to define injuries that will give rise to a case or controversy where none existed before, but it must at the very least identify the injury it seeks to vindicate and relate the injury to the class of person entitled to bring suit. The citizen-suit provision of the Endangered Species Act does not meet this requirement because, while it purports to confer a right on "any person" to enjoin the government, it does not establish that there is an injury in "any person" by virtue of any violation. While it does not matter how many people have been injured by an action, it must be shown to injure the plaintiff in a concrete and personal way.