NMA Email Newsletter: Issue #88

What Is Standing?

How many times have you heard or read of some absolute outrage where a law or regulation is being violated or ignored by a governmental agency and yet nothing is being done to correct the situation?

Over the years, there have been numerous instances where members have reported a clear injustice and they want us to launch a legal challenge to stop or punish the agencies and officials responsible for abusing their authority or shirking their responsibilities. Money concerns aside, our hands are often tied because we do not have “Standing.”

In very basic terms, before a person or a corporation can sue or initiate legal action against another person, corporation, OR government agency, they must be able to show that they have been directly harmed by the entity they are suing.

This is called “having standing.”

A few examples:

1) A pedestrian is hit by a motorist and is injured; the pedestrian has standing to sue the motorist.

2) A pedestrian observes a motorist driving carelessly and is irritated and sues the motorist for making the road unsafe. The pedestrian was not harmed and therefore does not have standing to sue the motorist. He can report the careless motorist to police and if a citation is issued, and a trial is held, the pedestrian can testify to what he considered to be the careless behavior of the motorist.

A good example of how the “standing” requirement ties our hands, and yours’ too, is the enforcement of the standards in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, MUTCD.

There isn’t a state or local unit of government that doesn’t have signs, signals, or related devices that violate the standards in the MUTCD. Even so, neither the NMA, nor you as a citizen, can take legal action to correct these violations, because we do not have standing. However, if a motorist receives a citation for violating an illegal sign, e.g. a non-standard speed limit sign, that citation should be dismissed because the government cannot enforce an illegal sign.

Only the federal government has standing to force the states to post legal traffic control devices and only the states can force the local governments to do likewise.

In general, citizens, or organizations like the NMA, do not have the right to use the courts to force the government to obey its own laws, but there are exceptions to this rule.

Many national environmental laws include provisions that allow citizens the use of the courts to act on behalf of the federal agencies and to sue violators, including government agencies, to force compliance with the law. So, even if EPA decides to not press an environmental violation (most likely for political reasons), a citizen’s group can use the courts to force compliance with the law. (This is often done with the full, but silent support of the EPA.)

The rationale for imparting this authority for citizen action is that environmental violations can harm individuals and the public at large in insidious ways and thus these populations should have standing to use the courts to stop these violations.

But here’s the disconnect, why aren’t motorists afforded the same right to use the courts to protect their health, welfare, and pocket books?

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