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Allen v. Wright

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Brief Fact Summary.

Parents of black schoolchildren sued the IRS in an effort to force it to adopt more stringent nondiscrimination standards.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Citizens do not have standing to sue a federal government agency based on the influence that the agency’s determinations might have on third parties.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Article III of the Constitution confines the federal courts to adjudicating actual cases and controversies.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

To discourage racial discrimination in private schools, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) denied tax-exempt status to schools that promoted such practices. The IRS’s Internal Revenue Code (the Code) also prohibited individuals from making tax-deductible donations to such racially discriminatory private schools.

Wright and other parents who parented black public school children filed a nationwide class action suit arguing that the IRS had not fulfilled its obligations in enforcing these provisions of the Code. The Plaintiffs asserted that they were injured by the IRS in that allowing tax deductions for donations to discriminatory schools was a stigmatic injury because the appearance of government approval for discrimination against blacks. Moreover, the Plaintiffs asserted injury in that tax exemptions for discriminatory schools impaired the ability of blacks to force desegregation of public schools because white parents would simply withdraw their children from public schools and place them in discriminatory private schools.

Issue.

Does the harm alleged by the Plaintiffs fulfill the constitutional requirement of standing?

Held.

No, the harm alleged by the Plaintiffs does not fulfill the constitutional requirement of standing.

Dissent.

Justice Brennan

Common sense alone would recognize that the elimination of tax-exempt status for racially discriminatory private schools would serve to lessen the impact that those institutions have in defeating efforts to desegregate the public schools.

Justice Stevens

The government is subsidizing white flight, which is sufficient to allow standing because the harm (lack of desegregated schools) is traceable to government conduct. Further, the standing doctrine addresses issues of parties, focusing in particular on the nature and sufficiency of the litigants’ asserted injury or interest in the litigation, rather than the fitness of the issues for judicial resolution.

Discussion.

The question of standing is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute or of particular issues. First, the injury alleged must be distinct and palpable, not abstract or hypothetical. Second, the injury must be traceable to the challenged action. Lastly, relief from the injury must be likely to follow from a favorable decision.

The Plaintiffs claim stigmatic injury suffered by all members of a racial group when the government discriminates on the basis of race–this claim of injury is not judicially cognizable. Our cases make clear that such injury accords a basis for standing only to those who are personally denied equal treatment by the challenged discriminatory conduct. If such an injury were cognizable, then standing would extend to, for example, a black person in Hawaii who wants to challenge the grant of a tax exemption to a racially discriminatory school in Maine. Recognition of standing in such circumstances would transform the courts into “no more than a vehicle for the vindication of the value interests of concerned bystanders.”

Further, it is too speculative whether any given parent of a child attending a private school would decide to transfer the child to a public school as a result of any changes in educational or financial policy made by the private school once it was threatened with loss of tax-exempt status.


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