The District of Columbia and Maryland won a major battle in federal court on Wednesday: U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte found they have standing to proceed with their lawsuit against President Trump for accepting payments made by state and foreign governments to the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The parties contend that the payments violate constitutional prohibitions against accepting gifts or benefits from other governments, referred to as the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses.
Standing is a major hurdle, especially in fairly novel cases such as this one. To have standing to sue someone, the plaintiff has to show an “injury in fact”—a clear, definite looming threat to a legally protected interest; establish that the target of your suit is behind that injury; and that the court can redress that injury. When a defendant challenges a plaintiff’s standing, as Trump did here, the court is supposed to apply these three prongs to the plaintiff’s complaint as if every part of it were true.
If you pass the standing test, you proceed to trial—and the merits of the case. Here, Maryland doesn’t have standing on the basis of lost tax revenue—the court found that harm too speculative—but both D.C. and Maryland do have standing on other bases.
The judge recognized what the two call an “intolerable dilemma:” a forced choice between giving the Trump Organization special perks—like a tax break of almost $1 million—or being disfavored as a result of their refusal to offer special treatment. Similarly, the court acknowledged the pressure to patronize the hotel, as Maine’s governor has, also violates the parties’ “quasi-sovereign” interests.
Second, the court accepted D.C. and Maryland’s proprietary interests, i.e., revenue stream from the MGM casino, give the two grounds for standing. The parties are competitors put at a disadvantage—denied the opportunity to compete—by Trump’s draw for state and foreign business, a.k.a. his violation of the Domestic and Foreign Emoluments Clauses.
Finally, Mesitte agreed with D.C. and Maryland that Trump’s threatening the economic welfare of their residents, and green-lighted their parens patriae argument, that they have standing as states seeking to enforce federal law to protect their residents, for whom they are responsible. The breakdown here was particularly compelling:
[B]oth the District of Columbia and Maryland are more than nominal parties. They allege competitive injuries affecting a large segment of their populations. The Amended Complaint alleges that in 2014, visitors to the District of Columbia generated approximately $6.81 billion in spending and drove $3.86 billion in wages for 74, 570 employees engaged in the hospitality industry. Am. Compl. ¶ 113. In Maryland, of more than 140,000 employees in the hospitality industry around the State, more than 72,000 work in the counties that border the District of Columbia.17 Am. Compl. ¶ 113. Further, there are at least 15 “high-end” restaurants and hotels in Maryland and 32 in the District of Columbia that can be said to either directly compete with the Hotel’s restaurant, BLT Prime, or with the Hotel itself, for event and meeting spaces. Roginsky Decl. ¶ 24; Muller Decl. ¶¶ 24–26. Plaintiffs allege that the bottom lines of all of these businesses are directly influenced by the President’s purported violations. Pls.’ Opp’n at 28.
In the Court’s view, that is enough. It can hardly be gainsaid that a large number of Maryland and District of Columbia residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, or dine at the Hotel rather than at comparable Maryland or District of Columbia establishments, in whole or in substantial part simply because of the President’s association with it.
Mesitte hardly struggled to trace the injuries in fact recognized above to Trump’s actions, and he rejected Trump’s argument that courts can’t issue declaratory judgment against the president by citing the Supreme Court. The court can issue either declaratory or injunctive relief—that is, tell Trump how to follow the law or order him to stop breaking it, to oversimplify—that will at least in part redress the harms Trump’s causing D.C. and Maryland, Mesitte concludes.
In other words, game on.