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Law School Case Brief

Bennett v. Spear - 520 U.S. 154, 117 S. Ct. 1154 (1997)


The question of standing involves both constitutional limitations on federal-court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise. To satisfy the case or controversy requirement of U.S. Const. art. III, which is the irreducible constitutional minimum of standing, a plaintiff must, generally speaking, demonstrate that he has suffered "injury in fact," that the injury is "fairly traceable" to the actions of the defendant, and that the injury will likely be redressed by a favorable decision. In addition to the immutable requirements of art. III, the federal judiciary has also adhered to a set of prudential principles that bear on the question of standing. A plaintiff's grievance must arguably fall within the zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision or constitutional guarantee invoked in the suit. 


The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) requires, inter alia, that the Secretary of the Interior to specify animal species that are "threatened" or "endangered" and designate their "critical habitat,"  and that federal agencies to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize a listed species or adversely modify its critical habitat.  After the Bureau of Reclamation notified the Forest Service that the operation of the Klamath Irrigation Project might affect two endangered species of fish, the Service issued a Biological Opinion, concluding that the proposed long-term operation of the project was likely to jeopardize the species and identifying as a reasonable and prudent alternative the maintenance of minimum water levels on certain reservoirs. The Bureau notified the Service that it would operate the project in compliance with the Biological Opinion. Petitioners, irrigation districts receiving project water and operators of ranches in those districts, filed this action against respondents, the Service's director and regional directors and the Secretary, claiming that the jeopardy determination and imposition of minimum water levels violated 16 U.S.C. § 1536, and constituted an implicit critical habitat determination for the species in violation of § 1533(b)(2)'s requirement that the designation's economic impact be considered. They also claimed that the actions violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which prohibits agency actions that are arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law. 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A). The District Court dismissed the complaint, concluding that petitioners lacked standing because they asserted "recreational, aesthetic, and commercial interests" that did not fall within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the ESA. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the "zone of interests" test--which requires that a plaintiff's grievance arguably fall within the zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision or constitutional guarantee invoked in the suit--limits the class of persons who may obtain judicial review not only under the APA, but also under the ESA's citizen-suit provision, 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g); and that only plaintiffs alleging an interest in the preservation of endangered species fall within the zone of interests protected by the ESA.


Did the court of appeals err in affirming the dismissal of irrigation districts' claims?




The United States Supreme Court held that the court of appeals erred in affirming the dismissal of irrigation districts' claims because their complaint alleged facts sufficient to establish the elements of standing as required by U.S. Const. art. III. Irrigation districts further met the zone-of-interests test to bring their claims under the citizen-suit provision, 16 U.S.C.S. § 1540(g) of the ESA. The Court held that irrigation districts' § 1533 claim was the only violation reviewable under the citizen-suit provision of § 1540(g)(1)(C), because the Secretary's omission of the required procedures of decisionmaking was the basis of that claim, and that the claims under § 1536 were not reviewable under the citizen-suit provision because the Secretary's conduct in implementing or enforcing the ESA was not a violation of the ESA within the meaning of those provisions. The § 1536 claims, based on the Biological Opinion, which was a final action, plainly were within the zone-of-interests that protected by § 1356 and thus were reviewable under the APA, 5 U.S.C.S. § 701 et seq.

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