Follow-up question to What does this sentence about Trump's lawsuits in Pennsylvania mean?

The document cited by Nate Eldredge in the answer to that question says:

Federal courts are not venues for plaintiffs to assert a bare right “to have the Government act in accordance with law.” Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 754 (1984), abrogated on other grounds by Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 572 U.S. 118, 126–27 (2014). When the alleged injury is undifferentiated and common to all members of the public, courts routinely dismiss such cases as “generalized grievances” that cannot support standing. United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166, 173–75 (1974). Such is the case here insofar as Plaintiffs, and specifically candidate Bognet, theorize their harm as the right to have government administered in compliance with the Elections Clause and Electors Clause.

This seems to say that if the government does not act in accordance with law, private citizens cannot file suit to force it to do so. But if the government is not acting in accordance with law, presumably someone/something would be legally empowered to force the government to obey the law. What is that entity? What happens if that entity does not file suit?

Offhand, the closest example that I can think of is when the UK government passed a bill that would break international law, but that is obviously different -- that case involved international law and the aggrieved country would presumably file a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice.

1 Answer 1


The general rule, in US courts, is that a person (or organization) can only sue if that person has actually been harmed in some way by the actions of the person or entity to be sued. This is called having standing.

In some cases a law specifically grants standing more widely than the usual rule would. For example, some state elections laws grant standing to any voter to challenge certain kinds of procedural violations.

In some countries there are special courts in which governmental actions (or inaction) alleged to be in violation of law can be challenged. In the US there is no such special court, such challenges are brought, if at all, in the form of ordinary lawsuits brought by individuals, groups, or organizations.

Sometimes a person who has actually been injured by a governmental action must be found in order to mount a legal challenge to that action.

There are other mechanisms than lawsuits which may be used to force compliance with law. An official who is acting improperly may be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. And non-compliance may be politically unpopular, and lead to a change of administration or to a legislator not being re-elected. But of course neither of those remedies always works.

In some cases one part or agency of the government can sue another part or a specific official. The law may explicitly provide for this, or a court may declare such a suit to be permitted.

In some cases there is apparently no way to force a legal settlement of a dispute. For example, the US Federal constitution has an "emoluments clause" which essentially says that the President shall not accept payments from foreign rulers or governments. It was apparently intended as a sort of anti-bribery provision. No US court has ever enforced it, and recent cases seem to suggest that impeachment is the only way to enforce it. (It seems that this is incorrect, and a better example is needed.)

The current US system is imperfect (as is every other system I know of, although in different ways). The reason for the standing rule is that if everyone who felt that something wrong was being done, even if not to him or her personally, could sue, the courts would be totality overrun with such suits, and much of government would have no time to do anything but to defend such suits. That is because almost every governmental action offends or angers someone, even if it does not do that person measurable harm. Limiting suits to cases where the plaintiff has standing is a key method of keeping the system in check.

The US doe3s not have any overriding monitor agency which can sue for any improper government action. If it did, who would keep that agency in its proper bounds?

  • Sometimes a person who has actually been injured by a governmental action must be found in order to mount a legal challenge to that action. If the government action is to make the wrong person the winner of the election, that would presumably injure every citizen of the country, right? The court document seems to reject this reasoning, however.
    – Allure
    Dec 7, 2020 at 23:44
  • 2
    Yes, @Allure it does. The theory is that what is everyone's grievance is no one' or more specificallym that courts are not good at handling generalized political issues. However, for elections, if ther is an allegation of vote fraud, the3 losing candidate generally has standing to sue, and voters whose ballots have been improperly not counted also have standing. In some states any vote has standing to bring a state case over an election. Many suits have been recently brought, and were not rejected for lack of standing. Dec 7, 2020 at 23:54
  • Courts have held that some people have standing to sue for "emoluments clause" violations so that particular example isn't apt. But the general conclusion that there are some violations of the law that no one has standing to enforce is sound.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 8, 2020 at 0:09
  • @ohwilleke Have they? I was under the impression that recent attempts to bring suits against President Trump on this issue were denied for lack of standing. Dec 8, 2020 at 0:21
  • There are several parallel suits. Some have been dismissed for lack of standing, but not the one discussed in the linked story. nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/… I think both the state lawsuits and the neighbor competitor lawsuits survived.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 8, 2020 at 0:23

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