The standing doctrine is one of Justice Scalia’s legacies and has become a powerful tool for keeping environmental citizen suits out of court. A recent federal district court decision in Chicago recognizes the public trust doctrine as a basis for granting citizens standing to sue to protect certain natural resources. The following guest post by Austin Probst gives a brief update on this decision. Austin is a Wayne Law student (JD expected ‘17), member of the Wayne Law Review and Environmental Law Society, and active in the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic. He has interned with the Hon. Patrick J. Duggan, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Detroit). Austin is currently researching a major project on the interplay between standing and the public trust doctrine in Great Lakes states, exploring in detail the issues raised in this recent decision.
Friends of the Parks v. Chicago Park District, No. 14-CV-09096, 2015 WL 1188615 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 2015) provides new authority for citizen plaintiffs to establish standing on the basis of the public trust doctrine.
The dispute began when a task force appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel submitted a report to convert a number of parking lots south of Soldier Field into a museum. The museum proposal was publicly endorsed by the mayor’s office and would be run by a non-profit corporation called the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (LMNA). The LMNA entered into an agreement with the Park District to set the terms pertaining to the use, construction, and operation of the museum at the project area. The project area, located within Burnham Park, consists entirely of land recovered from the waters of Lake Michigan. Under the terms of the agreement, the LMNA has the right to maintain, manage, and occupy the museum site.
The Plaintiffs, Friends of the Parks, filed a four-count complaint. The first three claims alleged violations under §1983 pertaining to due process, equal protection, and a state law claim that the defendants acted ultra vires (without proper authority to act). After defendants’ motion to dismiss these claims, the due process and ultra vires claims were allowed to proceed and the equal protection claim was dismissed without prejudice.
The fourth count alleged a violation of the public trust. The defendants responded to this count with a Rule 12(b)(1) motion for lack of standing. To establish standing, plaintiffs must show: (1) a concrete and particularized injury that is actual or imminent; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the defendant’s action; and (3) a likelihood that the injury can be redressed if the court finds in the plaintiff’s favor. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992).
The defendants argued that the Friends of the Parks could not establish standing because there was no imminent injury in fact as the alleged injury was contingent on future events. Specifically, defendants argued that the museum being built was contingent upon the museum and the project area being approved by a number of local government bodies including the City Council and the Park District.
Friends of the Parks responded by arguing that the Park District had already transferred exclusive rights to the LMNA in violation of the public trust and without legislative approval. Therefore, as citizens of Illinois, the plaintiffs argued they are already suffering an injury to the interest they hold in the trust resource.
The District Court denied the defendants’ motion and found that the plaintiffs had standing and a concrete imminent injury on the basis of the public trust doctrine:
"Under Paepcke [v. Public Building Comm’n, 263 N.E.2d 11, 18 (Ill. 1970)], it is clear that Plaintiffs have standing to assert their public trust and the related ultra vires state claims. Plaintiffs further have alleged their rights under the public trust doctrine are being deprived without procedural due process and in violation of equal protection, so as to violate the federal Constitution. Plaintiffs have identified a concrete injury – that the lands held in the public trust are imminently in danger of being altered by the actions of Defendants – and this injury can be redressed by a favorable court decision. See Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560–61. Consequently, Plaintiffs have established that they have standing to pursue their state and federal claims."
With the issue of standing resolved in favor of the plaintiffs, the legal dispute has continued and case is still pending (see this decision from February 4, 2016). Stay tuned for future updates on the litigation and an extensive research paper on the issue of standing based on the public trust doctrine.