Emory Law Journal


Who gets to be heard is a fundamental question in any democracy, and access to the arenas of political debate is every bit as contested as the disputes about policy within. The legal system offers rules of “standing” to determine who can make claims in a courtroom. We think the concept of standing is useful in making sense of access to a range of other political arenas as well. Notably, having an identifiable interest in the outcome of a particular set of decisions, a stake in the outcome, doesn’t necessarily grant a claimant access to an audience. Social movements work to convert stake into standing, and to win access to social and political arenas for distinct constituencies and claimants. Their arguments for access often parallel the legal criteria for standing. We provide an overview of the legal rules of standing, which afford judges considerable discretion in deciding who gets a hearing. We show that the rules for standing in the public sphere faintly echo those about access to a courtroom, although they are even less transparent and less reliable. Individuals and actors make claims about stake, expertise, and status to gain access to audiences in public debates, but standing is virtually always contested, contingent, and bounded. Using recent developments in the American gun debate, we detail political struggles for standing, considering the claims that various actors make in order to gain an audience. We find that significant audiences grant standing based on the political stance, rather than other identifiable criteria, contributing to a divisive and partisan debate, and critical challenges for making wise policies.