Title

Qui Tam Litigation Against Government Officials: Constitutional Implications of a Neglected History

Abstract

The Supreme Court concluded twenty-five years ago, in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, that uninjured private plaintiffs may not litigate “generalized grievances” about the legality of executive branch conduct. According to the Lujan Court, Congress lacked power to authorize suit by a plaintiff who could not establish some “particularized” injury from the challenged conduct. The Court believed litigation to require executive branch legal compliance, brought by an uninjured private party, is not a “case” or “controversy” within the Article III judicial power and impermissibly reassigns the President’s Article II responsibility to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The decision effectively granted the President a semi-exclusive power to monitor and ensure the legality of a broad range of executive branch activity.

The Lujan Court overlooked a now relatively unfamiliar aspect of Anglo-American legal history. From the 14th through the 18th centuries, the English Parliament, American colonial and state legislatures, and early federal Congresses routinely enacted “qui tam” legislation that authorized uninjured private “informers” to collect penalties for unlawful conduct by government officials. These qui tam statutes authorized private litigation against executive officials in circumstances that would be classified as generalized grievances under modern standing jurisprudence. The Lujan Court acknowledged historical use of qui tam legislation, but apparently believed such statutes were limited to regulation of “private part[ies].” The widespread practice of regulating government officials through qui tam legislation in the five centuries leading up to the framing of our Constitution suggests the need to reconsider the reasoning of Lujan, though perhaps not the result, and to revise the Court’s understanding of legislative tools available to monitor the legality of executive branch conduct.