Bender et al. v. Williamsport Area School District
Decided on Mar. 25, 1986; 475 US 534


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (religion)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does one member of a School Board have standing to appeal from a declaratory judgment against the Board?


A. Background:

When a group of high school students in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, formed a club for the purpose of promoting "spiritual growth and positive attitudes in the lives of its members," they asked the Principal for permission to hold club meetings on the school premises during student activity periods. The matter was referred to the School Superintendent, who denied permission on the basis of an opinion of the School District Solicitor, and the School Board upheld the denial.

The students filed suit in Federal District Court against the School District, members of the School Board, the Superintendent, and the Principal, alleging that the refusal to allow the club to meet on the same basis as other student groups because of its religious activities violated the First Amendment. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The District Court, on motions for summary judgment, ruled in the students' favor, but entered no injunction and granted no relief against any defendant in his individual capacity. The School District did not appeal, but complied with the judgment and allowed the students' club to conduct the meetings as requested. However, John C. Youngman, who was then still a member of the School Board, appealed on behalf of the district (respondent). No one questioned his standing to appeal, and the Court of Appeals held in his favor. The students (petitioners) petitioned for certiorari, and the US Supreme Court granted it to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
John C. Youngman, Jr., pro se, argued the cause for respondents and filed a brief for himself. James M. Smart, Jr., argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Samuel Eric Hans Ericsson, Lynn Robert Buzzard, Kimberlee Wood Colby, Curran Tiffany, Gerald W. Seevers, and Michael Joseph Woodruff.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
The following organizations filed as amici curiae urging affirmance: American Association of School Administrators by David S. Tatel and Elliot M. Mincberg; American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Jack D. Novik, Charles S. Sims, Burt Neuborne, Stefan Presser, and Joy L. Koletsky; American Jewish Committee et al. by Samuel Rabinove, Richard T. Foltin, William B. Duffy, Jr., and William S. Ellis;

American Jewish Congress et al. by Robert Reinstein, Jeffrey I. Pasek, Theodore R. Mann, and Nathan Z. Dershowitz; Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith et al. by Ruti G. Teitel, Justin J. Finger, Meyer Eisenberg, Jeffrey P. Sinensky, and Steven M. Freeman.
Deputy Solicitor General Fried argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General Willard, Michael W. McConnell, Anthony J. Steinmeyer, and Robert V. Zener.

Ad Hoc Group of State Education Officials, School Administrators, and School Board Members filed a brief of amicus curiae urging reversal by William H. Ellis;

Additional briefs urging reversal were filed for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights by Steven Frederick McDowell;

Concerned Women for American Education and Legal Defense Foundation by Michael P. Farris and Jordan W. Lorence; Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the USA by George R. Grange II; United States Catholic Conference by Wilfred R. Caron and Mark E. Chopko.


"Federal courts have only the power that is authorized by Article III of the Constitution and the federal statutes enacted pursuant thereto. Every federal appellate court must satisfy itself that the party seeking to invoke its jurisdiction has a sufficient stake in the outcome of the litigation to support that jurisdiction...

Respondent had no standing to appeal in his individual capacity. Although the complaint alleged that the action was brought against the defendants 'in their individual and official capacities,' there is nothing else in the complaint or in the record to support the suggestion that relief was sought or awarded against any School Board member in his individual capacity...

As a member of the School Board sued in his official capacity, respondent had no personal stake in the outcome of the litigation, and therefore had no standing to appeal in that capacity. His status as a Board member did not permit him to 'step into the shoes of the Board' and invoke its right to appeal...

Nor did respondent have standing to appeal in his capacity as a parent of a student attending the high school. There is nothing in the record to indicate anything about his status as a parent, or to indicate that he or his children have suffered any injury as a result of the District Court's judgment or of the activities of the club in question subsequent to the entry of that judgment. Respondent was not sued as a parent, and thus was plainly not a 'party' in that capacity in the District Court...

Held: Respondent had no standing to appeal, and therefore the Court of Appeals had no jurisdiction to hear his appeal... vacated and remanded."

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Stevens, J. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined majority opinion, wrote concurring opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Filed dissent)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Filed a dissent)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined Burger's dissent)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined Burger's dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the Supreme Court reversed the ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.