Supreme Court At-a-Glance Contributor Scott A. Wanner, Obtained his J.D. from the University of Illinois. Practices in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

No. 2020-0518

July 20, 2021

Affirmed.

 

  • Whether taxpayer standing is maintained under New Hampshire CONST. Part I, Article 8 where plaintiff has not alleged concrete, personal injury.
  • Whether taxpayer standing is maintained under New Hampshire CONST. Part I, Article 8 where plaintiff has not challenged any specific government action.

 

Plaintiff brought suit seeking a declaratory judgment against New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) alleging that “irresponsible” spending decisions had failed to protect children from abuse and neglect in violation of the Department’s statutory responsibilities.  Plaintiff alleged that the State’s child welfare agency was understaffed, under-trained and carried a backlog of thousands of abuse and neglect cases.  The Superior Court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss based on lacking standing; Plaintiff appealed.  Applying de novo review, the Court affirmed the dismissal where Plaintiff’s allegations failed to challenge any specific government action.

Prior to 2018, the Court’s reasoning in cases from Baer v. NH Dep’t of Educ. in 2010 through Duncan v. State in 2014 would have affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint because it did not allege any actual, personal harm.  Part II, Article 74 of the State Constitution provides standing to the legislature and governor to seek advisory opinions from the State’s Supreme Court for “important questions of law and upon solemn occasions.”  However, non-governmental parties such as Plaintiff previously required presenting claims impinging their own actual interests in order to avail themselves of the adversarial process before the judiciary.  The State legislature attempted to supersede the line of judicial decisions culminating in Baer through amending RSA 491:22, New Hampshire’s declaratory judgment statute, to include that “… the taxpayer shall not have to demonstrate that his or her personal rights were impaired or prejudiced.”  Yet the revised statute did not survive constitutional scrutiny.  In 2014, the Court ruled in Duncan v. State that the changes violated Part II, Article 74 of the Constitution.  As a consequence, the Baer rationale remained.

Baer’s rationale was finally overcome in 2018, when New Hampshire’s voters amended Part I, Article 8 of the New Hampshire Constitution, expressly permitting “taxpayer standing” for courts to adjudicate cases without personal injury when plaintiffs have alleged that the State’s spending of public funds violates the law. Taxpayer standing is a unique type of standing recognizing the vital interest in preservation of an orderly and lawful government. After 2018’s amendment, failure to allege personal harm was found by the Court to no longer be fatal.

In this case, however, the Court found Plaintiff’s failure to allege particularized faults with specific actions or spending decisions by DHHS supported dismissal for lack of taxpayer standing.  The Court observed that general complaints about government programs and the overall prudence of spending policies are considered beyond the judicial power.  Also, granting standing to general complaints was found to conflict with other constitutional provisions, including the separation of powers found in Part I, Article 37.  Courts are neither equipped nor empowered to wade into policy debates as to whether other governmental bodies are sufficiently funded or whether appropriated funds are being wisely spent to meet an agency’s objectives. The Court observed that its approach was consistent with other states that had considered the issue, specifically citing Missouri, Colorado and North Carolina cases: “The unifying theme, as it relates to standing, running through these cases is that taxpayers have standing to challenge specific governmental actions, not to launch broad polemics on governmental bodies’ general spending policies.” Carrigan, p. 9.

 

Rath, Young and Pignatelli (Michael S. Lewis on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff. Office of the Attorney General, (Samuel R.V. Garland and Jennifer S. Ramsey, assistant attorneys general, on the brief, and Mr. Garland orally), for the defendants.