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When public money is misused, who speaks for the taxpayer?

October 25, 2017

At a time when government seems to spend most of its time finding new ways to take more money from us and give it away to favored lobbyists, one may wonder: Who speaks for the taxpayer? When elected officials violate the laws that dictate how taxpayer funds should be spent, it’s frequently up to citizens themselves to enforce those laws by going to court and putting a stop to illegal government acts.

Unfortunately, judges in some states have tried to limit the taxpayer’s right to sue the government in these cases. They’ve moved to restrict taxpayers’ “standing” so that they can sue only where they can prove that government wrongdoing will result in an increase in their individual tax bill—something that’s extremely hard to prove—instead of when the government simply misappropriates funds.

Courts typically justify these restrictions on standing on the grounds that they fear being flooded by lawsuits. Citizens should ask their government officials to file lawsuits to enforce taxpayer protections instead of suing on their own. But as New York’s highest court once observed, expecting government officials to police themselves “is both unreal in fact and dubious in theory.” That’s why public interest groups such as the Goldwater Institute often bring lawsuits on behalf of taxpayers.

One court that got it right is the Illinois Court of Appeals. It refused to restrict taxpayers’ right to sue, holding that instead of forcing them to prove that their individual tax bills would increase as a result of government misconduct, they had a right to ensure that the government followed the law, and that was enough.  Taxpayers, said the court, “have an equitable right” to get a court order stopping the government when it has “misappropriated [taxpayer money] or put [it] to an illegal use.”

Now the case is before the Illinois Supreme Court, and the Goldwater Institute filed this friend of the court brief. We argue that courts should allow taxpayers broad standing to sue when public money is misused. Legal rules that limit how the government spends money are designed to protect taxpayers, after all, and when those in charge fail to follow the rules, it’s up to citizens to ensure that government is not above the law.



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