What is “mootness” in law? What is “ripeness?”

The doctrines of “mootness” and “ripeness” both deal with when it is appropriate for a court to hear a particular case.  They are related to the case or controversy requirement in the U.S. Constitution, which limits courts to hearing only those cases in which actual people or companies have an actual stake in the matter.

Mootness

In U.S. law, a “moot” case is one that further legal proceedings cannot affect or that has somehow moved out of the power of the courts.  For example, in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of DeFunis v. Odegaard.  In this case, the plaintiff was a student who had initially been denied admission to law school.  During the course of the case, however, the plaintiff was provisionally admitted to the law school.  By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, the plaintiff was only a few months from graduation.  Since the plaintiff had gotten admitted to law school, and since the law school could not prevent the plaintiff from graduating, the Supreme Court held that the case was moot.  There was nothing the Court could do at that point that would affect the situation either way.

A few exceptions exist to the “mootness” argument, however, including:

  • Voluntary cessation.  A court will not find that a case is moot even if the defendant has stopped doing the thing the plaintiff is suing him for.  For instance, suppose that the plaintiff is injured by pollution spilling into her water supply from the defendant’s factory.  When the plaintiff files her case, however, the defendant closes the factory, stopping the pollution.  The court will likely not find that this case is moot, however, since the defendant can simply re-open the factory after the case is dismissed or start up another factory elsewhere and continue to pollute the plaintiff’s or other people’s water supplies.
  • “Capable of repetition, yet evading review.”  A court will likely find that a case is not moot if the plaintiff can be in a position to be harmed again in the future, even if she is not being harmed at the moment the case is heard.  Cases dealing with a woman’s rights during pregnancy are a classic example of this exception.  A court will hear these cases even if the plaintiff is not pregnant at the moment of the court hearing, because the plaintiff is capable of becoming pregnant again in the future.
  • Class action representatives.  A case does not become moot if the person representing a class of plaintiffs stops being a member of the class by the time the case goes to court, as long as she was a member of the class when the case began.

Ripeness

A case may be dismissed if it is not “ripe,” or if all the issues in the case aren’t prepared for review.  This doctrine is also related to the “case or controversy” requirement because it requires an actual dispute between two parties based on conduct that actually happened.

For instance, suppose that the plaintiff in a breach of contract case sued the defendant after the defendant promised to deliver 5,000 widgets on October 10 under the terms of the contract, but when October 10 came, the defendant did not deliver the 5,000 widgets.  If the plaintiff files her case after the defendant has actually failed to deliver the widgets, the case will be considered “ripe”, because an actual breach of contract occurred.  However, if the plaintiff files her case on October 8, assuming (without knowing) that the defendant will not show up with the widgets two days later as promised, the case may be dismissed because it does not meet the “ripeness” requirement.

Ripeness doctrine is related to the prohibition against courts providing advisory opinions, or ruling on hypothetical cases that haven’t actually happened yet – another action that is prohibited by the “case or controversy” requirement.  In order for a case to be ripe, an actual harm must have occurred to an actual plaintiff.

 

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