The doctrine of standing is said to vindicate the separation of powers guaranteed by the structure of the Constitution. But “separation of powers” is not monolithic, and the Supreme Court has used standing doctrine to promote at least three separation-of-powers functions for the courts: (1) hearing only cases possessing sufficient concrete adversity to make them susceptible of judicial resolution; (2) avoiding questions better answered by the political branches; and (3) resisting Congress’s use of citizen suits—and therefore Congress’s conscription of the courts—to monitor the compliance of the executive branch with the law.
Whatever the value of those goals, standing doctrine does not effectively serve them. Moreover, standing doctrine—because it is not an effective vehicle for vindicating, or even discussing, separation-of-powers goals—has helped paper over profound disagreements within the Court over the meaning of each of these separation-of-powers functions, disagreements that have persisted since the doctrine began to flourish in the 1960s.
In this Article, I outline the three functions of standing, the debates over the meaning of each function, and the failings of the doctrine in each. I explain the problems caused by the doctrine's failure, positing that criticisms of the doctrine emerge in part from its use in the service of goals it cannot satisfy. I then suggest that these functions deserve more analysis than they receive in the impoverished context of standing analysis, recommend a dramatic scaling back of standing as a tool for separation-of-powers functions, and put forward as an alternative a vibrant abstention doctrine that would place separation-of-powers issues in the foreground. By adopting these recommendations, the Court can stem accusations that it uses standing doctrine for disingenuous purposes, provide clearer guidance for the lower courts, and more transparently realize the separation-of powers functions it seeks to promote.