ArtIII.S2.C1.1.7.1 Mootness Doctrine: Overview

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

In addition to the other justiciability doctrines discussed above, the Supreme Court's doctrine on mootness imposes another limitation on justiciability derived from Article III's case-or-controversy requirement 1 on the federal courts' jurisdiction to resolve disputes. 2 It has long been settled that a federal court has no authority 'to give opinions upon moot questions;'3 that is, when the issues presented are no longer 'live' or the parties lack a cognizable interest in the outcome.4 An actual controversy must exist not only at the time the complaint is filed, but through all stages of the litigation.5 Thus, if an intervening circumstance deprives the plaintiff of a 'personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit[]' at any point during litigation, the action can no longer proceed and must be dismissed as moot.6 The Supreme Court has justified the mootness doctrine on the ground that it ensures that the Federal Judiciary confines itself to its constitutionally limited role of adjudicating actual and concrete disputes, the resolutions of which have direct consequences on the parties involved.7

According to the Supreme Court, a case that becomes moot at any point during the proceedings is no longer a Case or Controversy for purposes of Article III, and is outside the jurisdiction of the federal courts.8 Because mootness is a jurisdictional limitation, a federal court can—and indeed must—dismiss a moot case even if none of the parties ask the court to do so. 9 A question about mootness may, in other words, arise at any time during the lifespan of a case, even on appeal. 10 In this respect, mootness bears close affinity to the other justiciability doctrines derived from Article III of the Constitution, 11 including standing 12 and the prohibition against advisory opinions. 13 To the extent that the mootness doctrine regulates the appropriate timing of judicial intervention,14 mootness serves as the converse of the ripeness doctrine, 15 which restrains the judiciary from adjudicating a case before it develops into a live dispute.

The Supreme Court has steadily developed the substantive and procedural aspects of the mootness doctrine over the course of nearly a century and a half. The Court has ultimately settled on the following formulation of the doctrine: If an intervening circumstance deprives the plaintiff of a 'personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit[]' at any point during litigation, then—subject to certain exceptions analyzed below—the action can no longer proceed and must be dismissed as moot.16

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1See U.S. Const. art. III, § 2 (stating that the judicial Power of the federal courts shall only extend to certain categories of Cases and Controversies).
  2.  Jump to essay-2E.g., Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 180 (2000) (The Constitution's case-or-controversy limitation on federal judicial authority . . . underpins . . . our mootness jurisprudence.); Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., 424 U.S. 747, 754 (1976) (Insofar as the concept of mootness defines constitutionally minimal conditions for the invocation of federal judicial power, its meaning and scope, as with all concepts of justiciability, must be derived from the fundamental policies informing the 'cases or controversies' limitation imposed by Art[icle] III.); DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312, 316 (1974) (The inability of the federal judiciary 'to review moot cases derives from the requirement of Art[icle] III of the Constitution under which the exercise of judicial power depends upon the existence of a case or controversy.') (quoting Liner v. Jafco, Inc., 374 U.S. 301, 306 n.3 (1964)); SEC v. Med. Comm. for Human Rights, 404 U.S. 403, 407 (1972) (same); North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971) (same).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Church of Scientology of Cal. v. United States, 506 U.S. 9, 12 (1992) (quoting Mills v. Green, 159 U.S. 651, 653 (1895)). See also, e.g., Calderon v. Moore, 518 U.S. 149, 150 (1996) (same).
  4.  Jump to essay-4L.A. Cty. v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979) (quoting Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 498 (1969)). See also, e.g., Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165, 172 (2013) (quoting Already, LLC v. Nike, Inc., 568 U.S. 85, 91 (2013)) (same); City of Erie v. Pap's A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000) (same).
  5.  Jump to essay-5Kingdomware Techs., Inc. v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 1969, 1975 (2016) (quoting Already, 568 U.S. at 90–91). See also, e.g., Decker v. Nw. Envtl. Def. Ctr., 568 U.S. 597, 609 (2013) (It is a basic principle of Article III that a justiciable case or controversy must remain extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed.) (quoting United States v. Juvenile Male, 564 U.S. 932, 936 (2011)); Lewis v. Cont'l Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 477–78 (1990) (To sustain our jurisdiction . . . it is not enough that a dispute was very much alive when suit was filed, or when review was obtained in the Court of Appeals.); Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 317 (1988) (That the dispute between parties was very much alive when suit was filed . . . cannot substitute for the actual case or controversy that an exercise of this Court's jurisdiction requires.); Burke v. Barnes, 479 U.S. 361, 363 (1987) (Article III of the Constitution requires that there be a live case or controversy at the time that a federal court decides the case; it is not enough that there may have been a live case or controversy when the case was decided by the court whose judgment we are reviewing.).
  6.  Jump to essay-6Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S. Ct. 663, 669 (2016) (quoting Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 72 (2013)).
  7.  Jump to essay-7Genesis Healthcare, 569 U.S. at 71.
  8.  Jump to essay-8United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, 138 S. Ct. 1532, 1537 (2018) (quoting Already, 568 U.S. at 91). See also, e.g., Iron Arrow Honor Soc'y v. Heckler, 464 U.S. 67, 70 (1983) (Federal courts lack jurisdiction to decide moot cases because their constitutional authority extends only to actual cases or controversies.); St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Barry, 438 U.S. 531, 537 (1978) (Mootness . . . implicates our jurisdiction.); Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24, 36 (1974) (Purely practical considerations have never been thought to be controlling by themselves on the issue of mootness in this Court . . . We are limited by the case-or-controversy requirement of Art[icle] III to adjudication of actual disputes between adverse parties.); North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971) (Mootness is a jurisdictional question because the Court 'is not empowered to decide moot questions or abstract propositions.') (quoting United States v. Alaska S.S. Co., 253 U.S. 113, 116 (1920)).
  9.  Jump to essay-9See, e.g., Juvenile Male, 564 U.S. at 933–34 (deeming case moot even though no party had raised any issue of mootness in the [court below], and the Court of Appeals did not address the issue sua sponte); St. Paul, 438 U.S. at 537 (At the threshold, we confront a question of mootness. Although not raised by the parties, this issue implicates our jurisdiction.); Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div. v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1, 7–8 (1978) (There is, at the outset, a question of mootness. Although the parties have not addressed this question in their briefs, 'they may not by stipulation invoke the judicial power of the United States in litigation which does not present an actual case or controversy.') (quoting Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 398 (1975)); Rice, 404 U.S. at 246 (Although neither party has urged that this case is moot, resolution of the question is essential if federal courts are to function within their constitutional sphere of authority.).
  10.  Jump to essay-10See, e.g., Lewis, 494 U.S. at 477–78 (To sustain our jurisdiction . . . it is not enough that a dispute was very much alive when suit was filed, or when review was obtained in the Court of Appeals.).
  11.  Jump to essay-11See, e.g., Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 499 n.10 (1975) (The standing question . . . bears close affinity to questions of . . . mootness—whether the occasion for judicial intervention persists.).
  12.  Jump to essay-12DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 352 (2006) (The doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and political question all originate in Article III's 'case' or 'controversy' language, no less than standing does.); Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 180 (2000) (The Constitution's case-or-controversy limitation on federal judicial authority . . . underpins both our standing and our mootness jurisprudence.). See generally CONAN III.2.13 (discussing the Article III standing doctrine). –>
  13.  Jump to essay-13See City of Erie v. Pap's A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000) (explaining that, if a case becomes moot, then any opinion as to the legality of the challenged action would be advisory) (emphasis added).See generally CONAN III.2.10 (discussing the bar on advisory opinions). –> The Court has emphasized, however, that mootness is conceptually distinct from the other Article III justiciability doctrines. See, e.g., Friends of the Earth, 528 U.S. at 190–91 (emphasizing the distinction between mootness and standing and explaining that mootness is more than simply 'standing set in a time frame') (quoting Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 68 n.22 (1997)); Burke v. Barnes, 479 U.S. 361, 364 n.* (1987) (We reject respondents' argument that the questions of mootness and standing are necessarily intertwined.). Whereas standing doctrine functions to ensure, among other things, that the scarce resources of the federal courts are devoted to those disputes in which the parties have a concrete stake[,] . . . by the time mootness is an issue, the case has been brought and litigated, often . . . for years. Friends of the Earth, 528 U.S. at 191. Moreover, as explained in greater detail below, the mootness doctrine is subject to exceptions that do not exist in the standing context. See, e.g., id. at 190–91 (If mootness were simply 'standing set in a time frame,' the exception to mootness that arises when the defendant's allegedly unlawful activity is 'capable of repetition, yet evading review,' could not exist . . . Standing admits of no similar exception; if a plaintiff lacks standing at the time the action commences, the fact that the dispute is capable of repetition yet evading review will not entitle the complainant to a federal judicial forum.).
  14.  Jump to essay-14E.g., Renne v. Geary, 501 U.S. 312, 320 (1991).
  15.  Jump to essay-15See, e.g., Note, Standing to Sue for Members of Congress, 83 Yale L.J. 1665, 1674 n.38 (1974) (describing ripeness as the converse of mootness).
  16.  Jump to essay-16Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S. Ct. 663, 669 (2016) (quoting Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 72 (2013)).