De Funis v. Odegaard (1974)

416 U.S. 312, 319 (1974)

Decision: Reversed
Vote: Per Curiam
Majority: Burger, joined by Stewart, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist
Dissent: Douglas
Dissent: Brennan, joined by Douglas, White, and Marshall


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 …

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 inability of the federal judiciary “to review moot cases derives from the requirement of Art. III of the Constitution under which the exercise of judicial power depends upon the existence of a case or controversy.” … 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 “[e]ven 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.” …

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 might also be suggested that this case presents a question that is “capable of repetition, yet evading review,” Southern Pacific Terminal Co v. ICC (1911) … 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 gauntlet of the Law School’s admission process, and so the question is certainly not “capable of repetition” so far as he is concerned. Moreover, just because this particular case did not reach the Court until the eve of the petitioner’s graduation from law school, it hardly follows that the issue he raises will in the future evade review. 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 “[t]he 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 case is remanded for such proceedings as by that court may be deemed appropriate.

It is so ordered.


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