By way of contrast, suppose Jean was not injured in an automobile accident, but that she has studied a series of accidents involving exploding gas tanks. On the basis of this study she concludes that the current state of product liability law is insufficiently protective of consumers; among other things, it has allowed several manufacturers to escape liability. Jean files suit against those manufacturers, seeking to establish that stricter standards of liability ought to be applied to their defective products. Her claim is not justiciable. Although Jean may well have a dispute with certain automobile manufacturers over the scope of their liability, the dispute is not of the nature usually resolved through the judicial process. In particular, Jean has suffered no judicially cognizable injury.
Because the justiciability doctrines derive in large part from Article III, they operate as limitations on federal judicial power. While states may if they wish impose similar limitations on their own courts, nothing in the federal Constitution requires them to do so. As a result, state courts are often able to hear matters that would not qualify as “cases” or “controversies” within the meaning of Article III. Thus, even though certain types of suits filed in state court may be removed by defendants to federal court, including those that “arise under” the Constitution (see 28 U.S.C. §1441), if the suit does not meet federal justiciability standards, the federal court will have no choice but to remand the action to state court or dismiss it. See DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332 (2006) (suit by taxpayers in state court, alleging that state tax violated the federal Constitution, was improperly removed to federal court because plaintiffs did not meet federal standing requirements and their suit thus did not qualify as an Article III case or controversy).
The materials that follow begin with a general examination of the basic elements of a justiciable case or controversy. Following this general examination is a more specific discussion of the doctrines of standing, ripeness, mootness, and political questions. As you read these materials, keep the basic premise in mind. Article III courts are, by constitutional definition, vested with the power to exercise a specific and limited type of authority, namely, the authority to function as decision makers in the context of disputes commonly understood to be susceptible to a judicial resolution.
Article III, §2 provides that the “judicial Power shall extend to” certain enumerated categories of “cases” and “controversies.” These words have been interpreted as not merely descriptive of the business of Article III federal courts, but as imposing a specific constitutional limitation on the circumstances under which an Article III court may exercise its judicial authority. The essence of that limitation is that an Article III court may only exercise jurisdiction over those matters:
Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240-241 (1937). In the words of the Haworth Court, “A justiciable controversy is thus distinguished from a difference or dispute of a hypothetical or abstract character; from one that is academic or moot.” Id. at 240. The elements of this constitutional minimum must be satisfied in every matter pending before an Article III federal court.
Returning to Example 3-A, Jean, as an accident victim, has satisfied the elements of a case or controversy in her suit against the manufacturer of the allegedly defective automobile. She and the manufacturer are adverse parties involved in an actual dispute regarding their respective legal rights and obligations—one seeks to establish the very liability that the other resists. In addition, the judiciary is in a position to provide effective relief by awarding compensatory damages if liability is established. On the other hand, when Jean, as a consumer advocate, sues automobile manufacturers to establish stricter standards of liability, the elements of a case or controversy are lacking. Although Jean and the manufacturers may well disagree over the appropriate legal standards to be applied in product liability cases, the dispute between them does not involve their legal relations. At most, Jean’s suit involves an abstract disagreement about matters of policy. She has not stated a justiciable case or controversy.