Seventh Circuit Casts Skeptical Eye on Municipal Taxpayer Standing in Challenge to Obama Presidential Center

In Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park Dist., No. 19-2308 (7th Cir. Aug. 21, 2020), the panel holds that a resident of Chicago lacked so-called “taxpayer standing” to challenge construction of the Obama Presidential Center (“OPC”) in historic Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. Indeed, the panel casts doubt whether such a doctrine even comports with modern federal standing doctrine.

The plaintiffs – a membership organization and an individual Chicago resident – challenged construction of the center, which is planned to include a plaza, a public library, a museum, and office space crowned with a 235-foot tower. The claims, both federal and state-law, centered on the Illinois public-trust doctrine which holds that former lakeshore land belongs in trust to Illinois residents. Plaintiffs claimed that construction of a private nature, even if otherwise approved by state and local authorities, violates that doctrine.

The district court granted summary judgment on all federal and state law claims. The Seventh Circuit affirms dismissal of the federal claims – but vacates judgment on the state claims, and orders that they be dismissed without prejudice for lack of standing.

While rejecting the federal constitutional claims peremptorily, the Seventh Circuit panel devotes most of its opinion to the dismissal of the state law claims on standing grounds. The plaintiffs notably did not press “the kind of concrete injury that many plaintiffs bringing environmental challenges do,” i.e., “that they use the affected area and are persons ‘for whom the aesthetic and recreational values of the area will be lessened’ by the challenged activity” (quoting Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167 (2000)). Instead, they based standing on interests supposedly recognized by Illinois law: “injury from a violation of the public trust doctrine” and injury to public property. As to both, the panel concludes that while these might present grounds to proceed in state court, which is not limited by Article III, they do not suffice as particularized injuries to support jurisdictional standing in federal court.

The defendants also advanced a theory of standing (to preserve summary judgment in their favor): that the individual plaintiff had “municipal taxpayer standing” to challenge the OPC, because city money would have to be expended to on infrastructure (roads and utilities) to support the project. But the panel rejects this approach, too. It notes that “[m]unicipal taxpayer standing is a bit of a relic in the modern landscape of standing.” Though recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1879, “the Court has not actually relied on municipal taxpayer standing in decades.” And the Supreme Court has “repeatedly emphasized that neither state nor federal taxpayers can satisfy this standard in a suit against the government for the illegal expenditure of taxpayer funds.”

While casting doubt that the doctrine still lives (outside the single exception of Establishment Clause litigation), the panel concedes that the authority to overrule prior authority on municipal taxpayer standing rests with the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the doctrine fails here because none of the expenditures would be on the OPC itself – only on changes around the proposed center (such as eliminating a six-lane stretch of road) that were inarguably lawful.

Also fatal to this theory of standing, “there has been no showing that the City will pay for those projects with municipal taxes …. It is not enough to simply allege that the City is spending money; the existence of municipal taxpayer standing depends on where the money comes from. The parties fail to grapple with the possibility that the relevant funds come from a source other than tax dollars. And that possibility isn’t remote—nearly a third of the City’s revenue comes from nontax sources.”

Absent any grounds for standing, the summary judgment for the defendant on the state-law claims is dismissed without prejudice, possibly to be refiled in state court.

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