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DeFunis v. Odegaard

Citation. 416 U.S. 312, 94 S.Ct. 1704, 40 L.Ed.2d 164 (1974).
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Brief Fact Summary.

A white student was denied admission to a law school. He successfully sued the school and was admitted by the trial court. By the time he was in his last year of law school, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Mootness ends a case when the parties no longer have opposing legal interests or any concrete or definite controversy between them.


DeFunis, a white student, applied for admission to the University of Washington Law School in 1971. DeFunis was denied admission to the law school despite his test scores being higher than some of the minorities admitted. He filed suit against the law school claiming that its admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A state trial court agreed with DeFunis and ordered officials to admit him in the fall of 1971. However, after DeFunis had already started his studies, the Supreme Court of Washington reversed in favor of the law school, explaining that its affirmative action program was a constitutionally permissible admissions tool justified by several state interests; namely, attaining a racially diverse student body while also helping to alleviate the shortage of minority attorneys.

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, DeFunis was already in his final year of law school.


Was the case in question moot and therefore outside the scope of judicial review?


Yes, the case in question was moot and therefore outside the scope of judicial review.


Justice Brennan

Many weeks of the school term remain and any number of unexpected events such as illness, economic necessity, or academic failure, might prevent DeFunis’ graduation at the end of the term. Were that misfortune to befall, and were he required to register for yet another term, the prospect that he would again face the hurdle of the admissions policy is real, not hypothetical. The case is thus ripe for decision.

Moreover, in disposing of this case as moot, the Court clearly disserves the public interest. The constitutional issues which are avoided today concern vast numbers of people, organizations, and colleges and universities, as evidenced by the filing of 26 amicus curiae briefs. Few constitutional questions in recent history have stirred as much debate, and they will not disappear.


An actual controversy must exist at all stages of appellate or certiorari review (or at least be capable of repetition), and not simply at the date the action is initiated. Because the University of Washington Law School had agreed to allow DeFunis to enroll and to earn a diploma, the case in question is moot. DeFunis will never again be required to go through the law school’s admission process and so the question is not capable of repetition as far as he is concerned. DeFunis will be able to complete his legal studies regardless of any decision the Supreme Court would make. Thus, the controversy between parties has ceased to be definite and concrete.

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