523 U.S. 83 (1998), 96-643, Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment

Docket Nº:No. 96-643
Citation:523 U.S. 83, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210
Case Date:March 04, 1998
Court:United States Supreme Court

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523 U.S. 83 (1998)

118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210




No. 96-643

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 1998

Argued October 6, 1997



Alleging that petitioner manufacturer had violated the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) by failing to file timely toxic-and hazardous-chemical storage and emission reports for past years, respondent environmental protection organization filed this private enforcement action for declaratory and injunctive relief under EPCRA's citizen-suit provision, 42 U.S.C. § 11046(a)(1). The District Court held that, because petitioner had brought its filings up to date by the time the complaint was filed, the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain a suit for a present violation; and that, because EPCRA does not allow suit for a purely historical violation, respondent's allegation of untimely filing was not a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Seventh Circuit reversed, concluding that EPCRA authorizes citizen suits for purely past violations.


Because none of the relief sought would likely remedy respondent's alleged injury in fact, respondent lacks standing to maintain this suit, and this Court and the lower courts lack jurisdiction to entertain it. Pp. 88-110.

(a) The merits issue in this case—whether § 11046(a) permits citizen suits for purely past violations—is not also "jurisdictional," and so does not occupy the same status as standing to sue as a question that must be resolved first. It is firmly established that a district court's subject-matter jurisdiction is not defeated by the absence of a valid (as opposed to arguable) cause of action, see, e. g., Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682. Subject-matter jurisdiction exists if the right to recover will be sustained under one reading of the Constitution and laws and defeated under another, id., at 685, unless the claim clearly appears to be immaterial, wholly insubstantial and frivolous, or otherwise so devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy, see, e. g., Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y. v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 666. Here, respondent wins under one construction of EPCRA and loses under another, and its claim is not frivolous or immaterial. It is unreasonable to read § 11046(c)— which provides that "[t]he district court shall have jurisdiction in actions brought under subsection (a) . . . to enforce [an EPCRA] requirement . . . and to impose any civil penalty provided for violation of that requirement"—as making all the elements of the § 11046(a) cause of action

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jurisdictional, rather than as merely specifying the remedial powers of the court. Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Inc., 484 U.S. 49, as well as cases deciding a statutory standing question before a constitutional standing question, distinguished. In no case has this Court called the existence of a cause of action "jurisdictional," and decided that question before resolving a dispute concerning the existence of an Article III case or controversy. Such a principle would turn every statutory question in an EPCRA citizen suit into a question of jurisdiction that this Court would have to consider—indeed, raise sua sponte —even if not raised below. Pp. 88-93.

(b) This Court declines to endorse the "doctrine of hypothetical jurisdiction," under which several Courts of Appeals have found it proper to proceed immediately to the merits question, despite jurisdictional objections, at least where (1) the merits question is more readily resolved, and (2) the prevailing party on the merits would be the same as the prevailing party were jurisdiction denied. That doctrine carries the courts beyond the bounds of authorized judicial action and thus offends fundamental separation-of-powers principles. In a long and venerable line of cases, this Court has held that, without proper jurisdiction, a court cannot proceed at all, but can only note the jurisdictional defect and dismiss the suit. See, e. g., Capron v. Van Noorden, 2 Cranch 126; Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 73. Bell v. Hood, supra; National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. National Assn. of Railroad Passengers, 414 U.S. 453, 465, n. 13; Norton v. Mathews, 427 U.S. 524, 531; Secretary of Navy v. Avrech, 418 U.S. 676, 678 (per curiam); United States v. Augenblick, 393 U.S. 348; Philbrook v. Glodgett, 421 U.S. 707, 721; and Chandler v. Judicial Council of Tenth Circuit, 398 U.S. 74, 86-88, distinguished. For a court to pronounce upon a law's meaning or constitutionality when it has no jurisdiction to do so is, by very definition, an ultra vires act. Pp. 93-102.

(c) Respondent lacks standing to sue. Standing is the "irreducible constitutional minimum" necessary to make a justiciable "case" or "controversy" under Article III, § 2. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560. It contains three requirements: injury in fact to the plaintiff, causation of that injury by the defendant's complained-of conduct, and a likelihood that the requested relief will redress that injury. E. g., ibid. Even assuming, as respondent asserts, that petitioner's failure to report EPCRA information in a timely manner, and the lingering effects of that failure, constitute a concrete injury in fact to respondent and its members that satisfies Article III, cf. id., at 578, the complaint nevertheless fails the redressability test: None of the specific items of relief sought—a declaratory judgment that petitioner violated EPCRA;

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injunctive relief authorizing respondent to make periodic inspections of petitioner's facility and records and requiring petitioner to give respondent copies of its compliance reports; and orders requiring petitioner to pay EPCRA civil penalties to the Treasury and to reimburse respondent's litigation expenses—and no conceivable relief under the complaint's final, general request, would serve to reimburse respondent for losses caused by petitioner's late reporting, or to eliminate any effects of that late reporting upon respondent. Pp. 102-109.

90 F.3d 1237, vacated and remanded.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined, and in which Breyer, J., joined as to Parts I and Iv. O'Connor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Kennedy, J., joined, post, p. 110. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 111. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Souter, J., joined as to Parts I, III, and IV, and Ginsburg, J., joined as to Part III, post, p. 112. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 134.

Sanford M. Stein argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Leo P. Dombrowski.

David A. Strauss argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were James D. Brusslan and Stefan A. Noe.

Irving L. Gornstein argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Schiffer, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, James A. Feldman, Edward J. Shawaker, and Mark R. Haag [*]

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Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a private enforcement action under the citizen-suit provision of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), 100 Stat. 1755, 42 U.S.C. § 11046(a)(1). The case presents the merits question, answered in the affirmative by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, whether EPCRA authorizes suits for purely past violations. It also presents the jurisdictional question whether respondent, plaintiff below, has standing to bring this action.


Respondent, an association of individuals interested in environmental protection, sued petitioner, a small manufacturing company in Chicago, for past violations of EPCRA. EPCRA establishes a framework of state, regional, and local agencies designed to inform the public about the presence of hazardous and toxic chemicals, and to provide for emergency response in the event of health-threatening release. Central to its operation are reporting requirements compelling users of specified toxic and hazardous chemicals to file annual

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"emergency and hazardous chemical inventory forms" and "toxic chemical release forms," which contain, inter alia, the name and location of the facility, the name and quantity of the chemical on hand, and, in the case of toxic chemicals, the waste-disposal method employed and the annual quantity released into each environmental medium. 42 U.S.C. §§ 11022 and 11023. The hazardous-chemical inventory forms for any given calendar year are due the following March 1st, and the toxic-chemical release forms the following July 1st. §§ 11022(a)(2) and 11023(a).

Enforcement of EPCRA can take place on many fronts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the most powerful enforcement arsenal: it may seek criminal, civil, or administrative penalties. § 11045. State and local governments can also seek civil penalties, as well as injunctive relief. §§ 11046(a)(2) and (c). For purposes of this case, however, the crucial enforcement mechanism is the citizen-suit provision, § 11046(a)(1), which likewise authorizes civil penalties and injunctive relief, see § 11046(c). This provides that "any person may commence a civil action on his own behalf against . . . [a]n owner or operator of a facility for failure," among other things, to "[c]omplete and submit an inventory form under section 11022(a) of this title . . . [and] section 11023(a) of this title." § 11046(a)(1). As a prerequisite to...

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