Monday, March 08, 2021

In Campus Religious Speech Case, Supreme Court Says Nominal Damage Claim Can Support Standing

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, (Sup. Ct., March 8, 2021), potentially opening the courts to a larger number of civil rights complaints.  The case involves a challenge to Georgia Gwinnett College's speech policies that led to a student being stopped from distributing religious literature and proselytizing on campus. Subsequently, the school changed its policies, but that did not moot the students' claim for nominal damages. At issue in the case as it reached the Supreme Court is whether a claim for nominal damages satisfies the requirement that for standing a plaintiff must show, among other things, that the remedy will redress the constitutional violation alleged. In an 8-1 decision, through an opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Court said in part:

Because nominal damages were available at common law in analogous circumstances, we conclude that a request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element of standing where a plaintiff’s claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.

The dissent worries that after today the Judiciary will be required to weigh in on legal questions “whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.” ... But petitioners still would have satisfied redressability if instead of one dollar in nominal damages they sought one dollar in compensation for a wasted bus fare to travel to the free speech zone....

This is not to say that a request for nominal damages guarantees entry to court. Our holding concerns only redressability. It remains for the plaintiff to establish the other elements of standing (such as a particularized injury)....

Justice Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion. 

Chief Justice Roberts dissented, saying in part:

Today’s decision risks a major expansion of the judicial role. Until now, we have said that federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes. Going forward, the Judiciary will be required to perform this function whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar. For those who want to know if their rights have been violated, the least dangerous branch will become the least expensive source of legal advice....

The best that can be said for the Court’s sweeping exception to the case-or-controversy requirement is that it may itself admit of a sweeping exception: Where a plaintiff asks only for a dollar, the defendant should be able to end the case by giving him a dollar, without the court needing to pass on the merits of the plaintiff ’s claims.

ABC News reports on the decision.