AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief supports longstanding California law giving taxpayers the right to challenge unlawful government policies in court. The issue in this case has to do with automobile impound policies, but the issue is important in a host of arenas where taxpayers have sought to challenge policies in the arena of disability rights, voting rights, and the integrity of government safety net programs.
Cherrity Wheatherford sued the City of San Rafael over the city’s policy of impounding the cars. Ms. Wheatherford’s car had not been impounded; she sued under the California taxpayer suit statute which permits taxpayers to bring lawsuits challenging government unlawful or wasteful government activity.
California enacted its taxpayer suit statute in 1909 in the midst of massive political reform in the state that emphasized putting power back in the hands of ordinary citizens. The statute provides a means for public-minded citizens to challenge public officials involved in unlawful, wasteful, or corrupt activity.
Over the years, however, individual courts in California have nibbled away at the law so that finally, today, in many areas of California the taxpayer suit statute is limited to homeowners and businesses – no one else has the right to bring these lawsuits.
In fact, this is what happened in Weatherford’s case. Because she is a renter, the appeals court ruled she did not fall under the definition of “taxpayer”. She argued that she pays gasoline taxes and county sales taxes, and thus is in fact a taxpayer.
AARP Foundation Litigation filed AARP’s brief in conjunction with three other civil rights organizations, urging the state’s highest court to uphold the letter and spirit of this venerable law. In the words of the brief, the current debate seeks “to redefine ‘taxpayer’ as membership in a private club that only property and business owners can join. At a time of great public concern over economic inequality, it would be ironic if a statute enacted to provide a means to challenge government illegality and waste were construed as the exclusive preserve of property and business owners.”
What’s at Stake
In this lawsuit the fundamental policy of access to justice generally, and the ability to monitor programs specifically is at stake. Taxpayer suits have had tremendous beneficial effects in cases involving programs and policies that discriminate against people with disabilities, in voting rights cases, and in cases challenging the reduction of critical government benefits (like Medicaid). If the ability to challenge policies is narrowed to only those wealthy enough to own homes or businesses, this would turn the statute on its head, limiting standing to those classes of people and entities who are already well represented in the political process, and not only limit oversight of government programs but create a two-tiered system of justice.
Wheatherford v. City of San Rafael is before the California Supreme Court, the state’s highest court.