City of South Lake Tahoe v. California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency

Decision Date25 June 1980
Docket NumberNo. 77-3191,77-3191
Citation625 F.2d 231
PartiesCITY OF SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Roger Capri, as Mayor of the City of South Lake Tahoe, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CALIFORNIA TAHOE REGIONAL PLANNING AGENCY, and Gordon Hooper, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

J. Thomas Rosch, San Francisco, Cal., argued, McCuthchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, San Francisco, Cal., Roy C. Abrams, South Lake Tahoe, Cal., on brief, for plaintiffs-appellants.

E. Robert Wright, Deputy Atty. Gen., Sacramento, Cal., argued, Evelle J. Younger, Sacramento, Cal., on brief, for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

Before WALLACE and SNEED, Circuit Judges, and SOLOMON, * District Judge.

WALLACE, Circuit Judge:

The City of South Lake Tahoe (City), and its mayor and members of its city council (collectively councilmembers) appeal from the district court's dismissal of their action against the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and four of its individual members (collectively CTRPA) for injunctive and declaratory relief. The district court ruled in response to two motions to dismiss brought by CTRPA, which separately raised both standing and abstention issues. In its order of dismissal, the district court relied on the rule that federal courts should, as a matter of discretion, abstain from exercising jurisdiction in cases where the federal constitutional claims that support jurisdiction would be mooted or altered by a state court interpretation of state law. The district court did not reach the question whether the City and councilmembers had standing, although this issue was fully briefed and argued. We do reach the standing question, because we find that standing must be ascertained before a court proceeds to exercise its discretion to abstain. Because we conclude that the City and councilmembers lacked standing, we affirm the dismissal of their action without reaching the abstention questions which would be posed only if jurisdiction were properly established.


The CTRPA is a political subdivision of the State of California charged with creating and enforcing plans for land and resource development in the Lake Tahoe region. Cal.Gov't Code § 67040 et seq. (West Supp.1979). The City and councilmembers allege that the land use regulations and regional and transportation plans adopted by the CTRPA are unconstitutional in several respects. Specifically, they allege that these plans and regulations so drastically limit residential development of unsubdivided property in the Tahoe basin, including the City, as to take property without just compensation and arbitrarily discriminate between similarly situated property owners in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The City and councilmembers further allege violations of the right to travel guarantee inherent in the Constitution, and that the CTRPA's actions conflict with the plans and ordinances of a similar administrative body, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency a bi-state agency established by Compact between California and Nevada and approved by Congress in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

The City alleges that enforcement of the CTRPA regulations has a substantial and injurious effect on its municipal finances and claims standing on this basis. The councilmembers claim standing in that they are required by law to enforce the CTRPA's regulations, Cal.Gov't Code §§ 67072, 67102 (West Supp.1979), and yet by voting to enforce these regulations would violate their oaths of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution and expose themselves to civil liability (pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983) for enforcing an unconstitutional law. Violation of any of the CTRPA's ordinances is a misdemeanor, Cal.Gov't Code § 67106 (West Supp.1979), as is a government official's willful failure to perform his duty, Cal.Gov't Code § 1222 (West 1966). 1 The councilmembers thus allege that failure to enforce the CTRPA's regulations could result in personal criminal liability, plus possible exposure to civil claims for non-enforcement (e. g., mandamus actions authorized by Cal.Code Civ.Pro. § 1084 et seq. (West 1970)). They argue that their dilemma they will be criminally and civilly liable for non-enforcement, and civilly liable for enforcement generates standing.


Standing is a necessary element of federal-court jurisdiction. Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 2204, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975). A threshold question in every federal case is, therefore, whether at least one plaintiff has standing. Construction Indus. Ass'n of Sonoma County v. City of Petaluma, 522 F.2d 897, 903 (9th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 934, 96 S.Ct. 1148, 47 L.Ed.2d 342 (1976). Only after a court is satisfied that standing and the other jurisdictional prerequisites are met may it determine, within its discretion, whether to abstain. See Miller-Davis Co. v. Illinois State Toll Highway Auth., 567 F.2d 323, 326 (7th Cir. 1977). Although the district court passed over the standing issue we must consider it because it governs our jurisdiction as well. Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421, 89 S.Ct. 1843, 1848, 23 L.Ed.2d 404 (1969) (opinion of Marshall, J.). We therefore examine whether the City and councilmembers have standing to bring this case.

A. The City's Standing

It is well established that "(p)olitical subdivisions of a state may not challenge the validity of a state statute under the Fourteenth Amendment." City of New York v. Richardson, 473 F.2d 923, 929 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 412 U.S. 950, 93 S.Ct. 3012, 37 L.Ed.2d 1002 (1973). See Williams v. Mayor of Baltimore, 289 U.S. 36, 40, 53 S.Ct. 431, 432, 77 L.Ed. 1015 (1933); Newark v. New Jersey, 262 U.S. 192, 196, 43 S.Ct. 539, 540, 67 L.Ed. 943 (1923); Trenton v. New Jersey, 262 U.S. 182, 188, 43 S.Ct. 534, 537, 67 L.Ed. 937 (1923); Aguayo v. Richardson, 473 F.2d 1090, 1100-01 (2d Cir. 1973), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1146, 94 S.Ct. 900, 39 L.Ed.2d 101 (1974). This is true whether the defendant is the state itself or another of the state's political subdivisions. See New Orleans v. New Orleans Water Works Co., 142 U.S. 79, 12 S.Ct. 142, 35 L.Ed. 943 (1891); Akron Bd. of Educ. v. State Bd. of Educ., 490 F.2d 1285, 1297-98 (6th Cir.) (Weick, J., dissenting), cert. denied, 417 U.S. 932, 94 S.Ct. 2644, 41 L.Ed.2d 236 (1974). Thus, the City may not challenge CTRPA's plans and ordinances on constitutional grounds. 2 Because all of its claims are based on the Constitution, the City's challenge was properly dismissed.

B. The Councilmembers' Standing

The essence of the standing question "is whether the litigant is entitled to have the court decide the merits of the dispute or of particular issues. This inquiry involves both constitutional limitations on federal-court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise. . . . In both dimensions it is founded in concern about the proper and properly limited role of the courts in a democratic society." Warth v. Seldin, supra, 422 U.S. at 498, 95 S.Ct. at 2205 (citation omitted).

As a constitutional minimum, standing requires that a plaintiff allege

"such a personal stake in the outcome of a controversy" as to warrant his invocation of federal-court jurisdiction and to justify exercise of the court's remedial powers on his behalf. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 204, 82 S.Ct. 691, 703, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962). The Art. III judicial power exists only to redress or otherwise to protect against injury to the complaining party, even though the court's judgment may benefit others collaterally. A federal court's jurisdiction therefore can be invoked only when the plaintiff himself has suffered "some threatened or actual injury resulting from the putatively illegal action . . .." Linda R. S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 617, 93 S.Ct. 1146, 1148, 35 L.Ed.2d 536 (1973). See Data Processing Service v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 151-154, 90 S.Ct. 827, 829-830, 25 L.Ed.2d 184 (1970).

Id. at 498-99, 95 S.Ct. at 2205 (footnotes omitted) (emphasis in original). This constitutional minimum is sometimes described as the requirement that a plaintiff must allege "injury in fact." Schlesinger v. Reservists to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208, 218, 94 S.Ct. 2925, 2930, 41 L.Ed.2d 706 (1974); Association of Data Processing Service Organizations, Inc. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 152, 90 S.Ct. 827, 829, 25 L.Ed.2d 184 (1970).

Beyond this "minimum constitutional mandate," Warth v. Seldin, supra, 422 U.S. at 499, 95 S.Ct. at 2205, the Supreme Court has developed, as a prudential matter of self-governance, certain "other limits on the class of persons who may invoke the courts' decisional and remedial powers." Id. Precisely which categories of plaintiffs are excluded on constitutional grounds, and which on prudential grounds, however, is not always easy to ascertain. For example, in Schlesinger v. Reservists to Stop the War, supra, the Court held that a plaintiff class lacked standing, as "citizens," to challenge the Department of Defense's policy of permitting Members of Congress to hold posts in the Armed Forces Reserve on the ground that this policy violated the Incompatibility Clause. 3 The Court said that the Secretary's nonobservance of the Incompatibility Clause "would adversely affect only the generalized interest of all citizens in constitutional governance, and that is an abstract injury." 418 U.S. at 217, 94 S.Ct. at 2930. In addition, the Court explicitly stated that such an "abstract injury" does not satisfy the Article III "cases or controversies" requirement. Id. at 227, 94 S.Ct. at 2935. Similarly, in United States v. Richardson, supra, 418 U.S. 166, 173-78, 94 S.Ct. 2940, 2944-2947, 41 L.Ed.2d 678 (1974), the Court said that a taxpayer's generalized grievance regarding the CIA's allegedly unconstitutional failure to issue a public Statement of Accounts and Expenditures pursuant...

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