De Funis v. Odegaard 

416 U.S. 312 (1974)

(Mootness Doctrine)



In 1970, a white student seeking admission to the University of Washington School of Law, Marco DeFunis, was denied admission despite having test scores higher than some minority students who were admitted to the law school. DeFunis petitioned a trial court to require the law school to admit him, arguing that his rejection from the school wasn’t based on merit but was the result of the school’s affirmative action policy, and that affirmative action had denied him equal consideration and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. DeFunis was provisionally admitted to the law school and was to be approaching graduation by the time the Supreme Court would have rendered its decision, as the University could not prevent him from graduating. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices determined that the case could not be considered to be an exception to the mootness doctrine because the plaintiff had been admitted to the law school and was in his final year, and he would personally not again face this situation; therefore, the issue of the case was moot. Since the Court determined the issue to be moot, it declined to render a merits decision on the case. This case, of course, would not prove to be the last to reach the Supreme Court over the issue of affirmative action, but was one of the first that brought the issue to the Court.

De Funis v. Odegaard


In 1971 the petitioner Marco DeFunis, Jr., applied for admission as a first-year student at the University of Washington Law School, a state-operated institution. The size of the incoming first-year class was to be limited to 150 persons, and the Law School received some 1,600 applications for these 150 places. DeFunis was eventually notified that he had been denied admission. He thereupon commenced this suit in a Washington trial court, contending that the procedures and criteria employed by the Law School Admissions Committee invidiously discriminated against him on account of his race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

DeFunis brought the suit on behalf of himself alone, and not as the representative of any class, against the various respondents, who are officers, faculty members, and members of the Board of Regents of the University of Washington. He asked the trial court to issue a mandatory injunction commanding the respondents to admit him as a member of the first-year class entering in September 1971, on the ground that the Law School admissions policy had resulted in the unconstitutional denial of his application for admission. The trial court agreed with his claim and granted the requested relief. DeFunis was, accordingly, admitted to the Law School and began his legal studies there in the fall of 1971. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and held that the Law School admissions policy did not violate the Constitution. By this time DeFunis was in his second year at the Law School.

He then petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari, and MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, as Circuit Justice, stayed the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court pending the "final disposition of the case by this Court." By virtue of this stay, DeFunis has remained in law school, and was in the first term of his third and final year when this Court first considered his certiorari petition in the fall of 1973. Because of our concern that DeFunis' third-year standing in the Law School might have rendered this case moot, we requested the parties to brief the question of mootness before we acted on the petition. In response, both sides contended that the case was not moot. The respondents indicated that, if the decision of the Washington Supreme Court were permitted to stand, the petitioner could complete the term for which he was then enrolled but would have to apply to the faculty for permission to continue in the school before he could register for another term.

We granted the petition for certiorari on November 19, 1973. The case was in due course orally argued on February 26, 1974.

In response to questions raised from the bench during the oral argument, counsel for the petitioner has informed the Court that DeFunis has now registered "for his final quarter in law school." Counsel for the respondents have made clear that the Law School will not in any way seek to abrogate this registration. 


What makes a case moot?


In light of DeFunis' recent registration for the last quarter of his final law school year, and the Law School's assurance that his registration is fully effective, the insistent question again arises whether this case is not moot, and to that question we now turn.

The starting point for analysis is the familiar proposition that "federal courts are without power to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before them." Although as a matter of Washington state law it appears that this case would be saved from mootness by "the great public interest in the continuing issues raised by this appeal,” the fact remains that under Art. III "even in cases arising in the state courts, the question of mootness is a federal one which a federal court must resolve before it assumes jurisdiction."

The respondents have represented that, without regard to the ultimate resolution of the issues in this case, DeFunis will remain a student in the Law School for the duration of any term in which he has already enrolled. Since he has now registered for his final term, it is evident that he will be given an opportunity to complete all academic and other requirements for graduation, and, if he does so, will receive his diploma regardless of any decision this Court might reach on the merits of this case. In short, all parties agree that DeFunis is now entitled to complete his legal studies at the University of Washington and to receive his degree from that institution. A determination by this Court of the legal issues tendered by the parties is no longer necessary to compel that result, and could not serve to prevent it. DeFunis did not cast his suit as a class action, and the only remedy he requested was an injunction commanding his admission to the Law School. He was not only accorded that remedy, but he now has also been irrevocably admitted to the final term of the final year of the Law School course. The controversy between the parties has thus clearly ceased to be "definite and concrete" and no longer "touch[es] the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests." 

It matters not that these circumstances partially stem from a policy decision on the part of the respondent Law School authorities. The respondents, through their counsel, the Attorney General of the State, have professionally represented that in no event will the status of DeFunis now be affected by any view this Court might express on the merits of this controversy. And it has been the settled practice of the Court, in contexts no less significant, fully to accept representations such as these as parameters for decision.

There is a line of decisions in this Court standing for the proposition that the "voluntary cessation of allegedly illegal conduct does not deprive the tribunal of power to hear and determine the case, i. e., does not make the case moot." These decisions and the doctrine they reflect would be quite relevant if the question of mootness here had arisen by reason of a unilateral change in the admissions procedures of the Law School. For it was the admissions procedures that were the target of this litigation, and a voluntary cessation of the admissions practices complained of could make this case moot only if it could be said with assurance "that 'there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated.'"  But mootness in the present case depends not at all upon a "voluntary cessation" of the admissions practices that were the subject of this litigation. It depends, instead, upon the simple fact that DeFunis is now in the final quarter of the final year of his course of study, and the settled and unchallenged policy of the Law School to permit him to complete the term for which he is now enrolled. 

It might also be suggested that this case presents a question that is "capable of repetition, yet evading review," and is thus amenable to federal adjudication even though it might otherwise be considered moot. But DeFunis will never again be required to run the gantlet of the Law School's admission process, and so the question is certainly not "capable of repetition" so far as he is concerned. If the admissions procedures of the Law School remain unchanged, there is no reason to suppose that a subsequent case attacking those procedures will not come with relative speed to this Court, now that the Supreme Court of Washington has spoken. This case, therefore, in no way presents the exceptional situation in which the Southern Pacific Terminal doctrine might permit a departure from "the usual rule in federal cases . . . that an actual controversy must exist at stages of appellate or certiorari review, and not simply at the date the action is initiated." 


 Because the petitioner will complete his law school studies at the end of the term for which he has now registered regardless of any decision this Court might reach on the merits of this litigation, we conclude that the Court cannot, consistently with the limitations of Art. III of the Constitution, consider the substantive constitutional issues tendered by the parties. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington is vacated, and the cause is remanded for such proceedings as by that court may be deemed appropriate.


Key Takeaway

The case was moot.

The case didn't constitute "voluntary cessation" on the part of the law school because the plaintiff was in his final quarter, and the law school couldn't take action to deny him the ability to graduate.

Additionally, it wasn't a question that was "capable of repetition, yet evading review" because the plaintiff wouldn't face the situation again, and others who might raise the same complaint in the future might be able to receive the courts' full review.

Court Syllabus

After being denied admission to a state-operated law school, petitioner brought this suit on behalf of himself alone for injunctive relief, claiming that the school's admissions policy racially discriminated against him in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court agreed and ordered the school to admit him in the fall of 1971. The Washington Supreme Court reversed, holding that the school's admissions policy was not unconstitutional. MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, as Circuit Justice, stayed that judgment pending this Court's final disposition of the case, with the result that petitioner was in his final school year when this Court considered his petition for certiorari. After oral argument, the Court was informed that petitioner had registered for his final quarter. Respondents have assured the Court that this registration is fully effective regardless of the ultimate disposition of the case. Held: Because petitioner will complete law school at the end of the term for which he has registered regardless of any decision this Court might reach on the merits, the Court cannot, consistently with the limitations of Art. III of the Constitution, consider the substantive constitutional issues, and the case is moot.

(a) Mootness here does not depend upon a "voluntary cessation" of the school's admissions practices but upon the simple fact that petitioner is in his final term, and the school's fixed policy to permit him to complete the term.

(b) The case presents no question that is "capable of repetition, yet evading review," since petitioner will never again have to go through the school's admissions process, and since it does not follow that the issue petitioner raises will in the future evade review merely because this case did not reach the Court until the eve of petitioner's graduation.

How the Justices Voted

Per curiam.

Dissent: Douglas

Dissent: Brennan, joined by Douglas, White, Marshall