Mootness: Legal Definition & Doctrine

Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a JD.

What does it mean when an issue is declared moot, and why can it have such major consequences for a court case? Learn the basics of mootness and how the concept is connected to the U.S. Constitution.

What Is a Moot Issue?

Mootness. It's a silly-sounding word, but it can have huge consequences for a court case. Mootness arises when there is no longer an actual controversy between the parties to a court case, and any ruling by the court would have no actual, practical impact. If it is determined that all issues in a case being heard in a U.S. federal court have become moot, then the court must dismiss the case.

Why Does Mootness Matter?

Article III of the U.S. Constitution governs the federal court system. Within Article III is what's referred to as the Case or Controversy Clause, which has been interpreted to mean that parties to a federal case must be involved in a justiciable controversy or one that involves an actual dispute. In other words, a court can't take on a purely hypothetical debate in which it would be called on to decide what might happen if something were to arise between two parties.

Mootness arises when there was at one time a conflict or dispute between the parties but, during the time a case takes to come to trial and be decided by a court, that conflict or dispute has ceased to exist. If the court determines that the conflict has died and the parties no longer have any actual, vested interest in what the outcome might be, then the court will find that the issue is moot and dismiss the case in order to be in accordance with the Case or Controversy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. (If there are multiple issues at stake in a case and only one issue becomes moot, the court won't dismiss the entire case; the court will still produce findings on those other issues.)

Here's an example of mootness. Let's say that the police suspect that Joe is a drug dealer. The police raid his home and seize cash and his car. Joe, who is not in fact a drug dealer, sues the city and its representatives due to the procedures involved with the seizure. The police determine that their suspicions were incorrect, and return the cash and car to Joe. Due to the mootness doctrine, the federal court to which Joe brought his suit would have to dismiss his case, as there would no longer be an actual dispute between the parties regarding the rightful ownership of the cash and the car, and there would no longer be any potential relief that the court could grant.

Exception to Mootness

Is there any flexibility allowed with the mootness doctrine? What about cases in which the nature of the circumstances are bound to change within a short span of time, given the long periods of time that cases take to be litigated and appealed? There are a few exceptions to the mootness doctrine; a major exception is for issues that are capable of repetition yet evade review. Scenarios that are capable of repetition yet evade review are ones in which the relevant conflicts would always cease to exist before the resolution of a court case. Since those scenarios are ones that would be repeated in the future, courts would want to rule on them rather than always dismiss them under the mootness doctrine.

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