Mootness

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In law, a matter is moot if further legal proceedings with regard to it can have no effect, or events have placed it beyond the reach of the law. Thereby the matter has been deprived of practical significance or rendered purely academic. This is a little different from the ordinary meaning of moot, which means to raise an issue. The shift in usage was first observed in the United States.

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Mootness and U.S. Federal Courts

In the U.S. federal judicial system, a moot case must be dismissed. The reason for this is that Article Three of the United States Constitution limits the jurisdiction of all federal courts to "cases and controversies". Thus, a civil action or appeal in which the court's decision will not affect the rights of the parties is beyond the power of the court to decide.

A textbook example of such a case is the United States Supreme Court case DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312 (1974). The plaintiff was a student who had been denied admission to law school, and had then been provisionally admitted during the pendancy of the case. Because the student was slated to graduate within a few months at the time the decision was rendered, and there was no action the law school could take to prevent that, the Court determined that a decision on its part would have no effect on the student't rights. Therefore, the case was dismissed as moot.

Exceptions to mootness

There are three major exceptions to this mootness rule. These are cases of "voluntary cessation" on the part of the defendant; questions that are "capable of repetition, yet evading review"; and questions involving class actions where the named party ceases to represent the class.

Voluntary cessation

Where a defendant is acting in a wrongful manner, but ceases to engage in such conduct once litigation has been threatened or commenced, the court will still not deem this correction to moot the case. Obviously, a party could stop acting improperly just long enough for the case to be dismissed, and then return to their previous ways. This exception has sometimes been stretched to an extreme - in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc., 528 U.S. 167 (2000), the Supreme Court held that an industrial polluter against whom various deterrant civil penalties were being pursued could not claim that the case was moot, even though the polluter had ceased polluting, and had closed the factory responsible for the pollution complained of. The Court noted that the polluter still retained its license to operate such a factory, and could reopen similar operations elsewhere if not deterred by the fine sought.

Capable of repetition, yet evading review

A court will allow a case to go forward if it is the type for which persons will frequently be faced with a particular situation, but will likely cease to be in a position where the court can provide a remedy for them in the time that it takes for the justice system to address their situation. The most frequently cited example is the 1973 United States Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), which challenged a Texas law forbidding abortion in most circumstances. The state argued that the case was moot because plaintiff Roe was no longer pregnant by the time the case was heard. The Court granted a hearing anyway, holding that the public interest was served by deciding the question even if circumstances made it impossible for Roe herself to benefit. The Court cited Southern Pacific Terminal Co. v. ICC, 219 U.S. 498, 515 (1911), which had held that a case was not moot when it presented an issue that was "capable of repetition, yet evading review". Perhaps in response to increasing workloads at all levels of the judiciary, the recent trend in the Supreme Court and other U.S. courts has been to construe this exception rather narrowly.

Class action representatives

Where a class action lawsuit is brought, with one named plaintiff actually representing the interests of many others, the case will not become moot even if the named plaintiff ceases to belong to the class that is seeking a remedy. In Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975), the plaintiff represented a class that was challenging an Iowa law that required persons to reside there for a year before seeking a divorce in Iowa's courts. The Supreme Court held that, although the plaintiff successfully divorced in another state, her attorneys could continue to competently advance the interests of other members of the class.

Mootness and U.S. State Courts

The U.S. state courts are not subject to the Article III limitations on their jurisdiction, and some state courts are permitted by their local constitutions and laws to render opinions in moot cases where the establishment of a legal precedent is desirable. For instance, in some state courts the prosecution can lodge an appeal after a defendant is acquitted: although the appeal court cannot set aside a not guilty verdict due to double jeopardy, it can issue a ruling as to whether a trial court's ruling on a particular issue during the trial was erroneous. This opinion will then be binding on future cases heard by the courts of that state.

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