Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Get up, stand up...

I’m not really sure how I feel about this.

…[A] state bill would give community and homeowners associations legal standing, or the right, to participate in disputes, allowing the groups to provide financial support and resources.

“Standing is a great problem for citizens in challenging official actions,” said Bridge Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. “It makes it almost impossible to challenge most things.”

The bill, sponsored by five delegates from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, would authorize community and homeowners associations to intervene in disputes such as government or court proceedings.

Lobbyists have thwarted legislators’ previous attempts over the last 15 years to allow associations to represent collective community interests in state court, lawmakers said.

State law requires lawsuits to name individual property owners who have a stake in the case, opening them to threats of countersuits and private deals, they said.

Currently to show legal standing, individuals must prove they are “specially aggrieved” by a decision, such as a proposed development, meaning the resident is more affected than the general population is, Mugane said.

More residents may be affected, she said, but they might hesitate to pour the money and time into a court challenge.
So, I’m posting it here in hopes of getting a wide range of feedback to better inform my decision.

On the one hand, I agree that the scales are currently tipped against citizens; the costs of challenging such decisions (in terms of time and money) are daunting and often prohibitive. Also, the concept of “specially aggrieved” seems a little mushy.

On the other hand, we have limits on legal challenges for a reason. Easing the standards could open the process to endless challenges and even NIMBY groups that exist solely to prevent any additional development. Also, these arguments ring hollow:
The judicial system would also benefit from the added resources, said Allen Dyer, an attorney lobbying on behalf of the Falls Road Community Association in Baltimore County.

Community associations can better research the argument, which means judges will hear a well-prepared case, he said.
As I understand it, there’s nothing preventing a community group from assisting a citizen who is challenging a decision in court. Moreover, as is the case with the current Plaza case, citizens are free to raise money on their own to support challenges.

I guess I’m leaning against the bill (barring additional detailed information), but not so much that I’ll dismiss arguments to the contrary.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A couple of comments:

1. Maryland is much more restrictive than most other states in this regard. The proverbial opened floodgates of litigation hasn't washed away the judicial systems in any other state.

2. There are likely to be tax implications for a regular citizen raising money for his/her own personal litigation.

3. More to the point, and I think this is what Mr. Dyer is saying, associational standing allows a more "communitarian" approach to challenging a decision. Frequently the interests of individual litigants and associational litigants diverge - and the associations generally have the broader community interests in mind. NIMBYism is actually less acute and the genuine issues more likely to be addressed with a community plaintiff than an individual.

4. The bills being discussed need to be expanded, actually. Larger environmental groups, for example, also need this legitimate access to the courts.

In my view, too many bad decisions go unchallenged because of the practical and legal limits to judicial review. Access to the courts will force decision-makers to do a better job in our system of purported checks and balances. The courts have a multitude of ways to get rid of "frivolous" challenges -- but it seems unfair and backward to limit standing such that legitimate challenges will go unheard.