Ashwin (he/him) is a senior from Santa Clara, CA double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science, minoring in Music, and pursuing a coterminal master’s degree in Philosophy. His thesis in the Ethics in Society honors program was inspired by research he did while working for the fair housing project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law during his sophomore and junior years. On campus, Ashwin is an intern at the Stanford Center for Racial Justice, an undergraduate fellow at the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, a Political Science department peer advisor, a Structured Liberal Education tutor and community connection, and an avid member of Stanford Mixed Company A Cappella. His academic interests are primarily in political theory and in thinking about the role of the judiciary in a democratic society, and he hopes to attend law school in the future. In his free time, he loves going on long bike rides, listening to Supreme Court podcasts, and singing with his friends.
Standing Against Injustice: An Expanded Vision of Standing Doctrine for Public Law Litigation
Advisor: Wendy Salkin
What is the focus of your current research?
Standing doctrine is the set of conditions that determines whether a plaintiff can bring a claim into U.S. federal court. Currently, a plaintiff must prove that some specific individual has suffered some concrete injury. This might seem reasonable, but standing doctrine often shields harmful laws which cause indirect injury from being legally challenged. Courts have often dismissed lawsuits over issues such as anti-sodomy laws, police brutality, and environmental damage on procedural grounds without considering their merits. My thesis asks two questions: why is standing doctrine this restrictive, and how can it be expanded so the court can protect public rights?
What drew you to this topic?
While interning with the fair housing project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, I had to evaluate why previous cases challenging inequitable property tax assessments had failed in court. I found that many cases had been shut down on procedural grounds, including standing. I knew that I wanted my thesis to explore big philosophical questions about the role of the judiciary in a democratic society, and as I thought about how I might narrow my topic to make my inquiry more precise, I realized that issues surrounding standing doctrine exemplify those big questions.
How are you conducting your research?
My research draws on literature in the fields of law and political theory. In my work, I am trying to strike a balance between theoretical and historical perspectives. The literature around standing doctrine generally splits into a few categories. Some authors focus on the empirical consequences of modern standing doctrine, noting unjust rulings and proposing specific solutions. Others focus on the theoretical framework behind standing, making more abstract normative arguments. This portion of the literature further separates into authors discussing history and legal precedent and authors engaging with political theory. I aim to show how these varied perspectives are related.
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
I think most people unfamiliar with the U.S. court system would be quite surprised to learn how complex and impactful the issue of justiciability is. Questions of justiciability concern what matters are within the jurisdiction of the court. Limiting the scope of issues that are justiciable serves to shape the way that the courts can interact with other institutions like legislatures. Proponents of the current, restrictive vision of standing doctrine often argue that limiting access to the courts through standing is necessary because it limits the range of justiciable issues ensuring that the court cannot override other institutions too easily.
In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic?
I think there are two reasons it is valuable to study this topic. First, in U.S. democracy, the judiciary serves a deeply important role in protecting rights. Standing doctrine determines who has access to the courts and helps establish the boundaries of judicial power. Second, as I dive deeper into the literature, I have noticed that there is a sort of disconnect between authors discussing standing on a theoretical level and an empirical level. However, I think these two levels of analysis should ideally be in direct conversation, and I hope to seriously consider both of them in my thesis.
How is your honors thesis impacting you academically and/or personally?
I decided to write an honors thesis because I realized there were a handful of ideas from my academic and professional work that I just could not stop thinking about. Studying philosophy and political science, I have been making focused theoretical arguments about political institutions for years now. However, my professional work has often focused on much messier situations in the real world. My thesis has given me an opportunity to seriously pursue the issues I cannot stop thinking about in a way that combines theoretical normative arguments and thorough empirical inquiry into the way the law works in the U.S.
How do you anticipate the fellowship will be able to support your research?
I am really looking forward to having a community like this on campus! As a freshman, I was in the Structured Liberal Education program, and I found that having a close group of peers who were all grappling with the same big questions helped us all be more creative. While the Hume Honors Fellows are all working on incredibly different topics, I think that the intellectual community of my cohort and of the Humanities Center will help me elevate this project that I care about so deeply.