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DeFunis v. Odegaard

Citation. 416 U.S. 312 (1974)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner Marco DeFunis applied for admission as a first-year student at the University of Washington Law School. His admission was denied and he commenced the suit arguing 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.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Federal courts are without power to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before the,.


The University of Washington Law School’s incoming first-year class was limited to 150 persons and it received more than 1600 applications. DeFunish’s admission as a first-year student was denied and he sued arguing that the policy of the law school admissions committee invidiously discriminated against him on account of his race. He asked the trial court to issue a mandatory injunction ordering the respondents to admit him as a first-year class member on the ground the the law school admissions policy had resulted in the unconstitutional denial of his application for admission. The trial court granted the requested relief. The respondents appealed.


May the Court consider the substantive constitutional issues tendered by the parties where the questions presented cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case?


No, the federal courts cannot review moot cases – that cannot affect parties rights in a case – under the requirement of Article III of the Constitution under which the exercise of judicial power depends upon the existence of case or controversy. Although under Washington state laws, it appears that this case would be saved from mootness by the great public interest in the continuing issues, the question of mootness is a federal one which a federal court must resolve before it assumes jurisdiction even if cases arise in the state court.


Justice Brennan

The majority states that the petitioner is in his final quarter of the law school and will graduate shortly before this Court reaches a decision. However, many weeks of the school term remain and the petitioner may not receive his degree despite respondents’ assurance that he will be allowed to complete the final term regardless of the Court’s decision. Any unexpected events such as illness or economic necessity might prevent his graduation. Also, there is no lack of an adversary contest in this case and the Court clearly disserves the public interest by disposing of the case. The constitutional issues that are avoided today concern vast number of people, organization, and colleges. They must inevitably return to the federal courts and avoidance of repetitious litigation fails to serve the public interest.


All parties agreed that DeFunis is entitled to complete his legal studies at the University of Washington and to receive his degree from that institution. A determination by the Supreme Court of the legal issues is no longer necessary to compel that result and could not serve to prevent it. Because DeFunis did not cast his suit as a class action and already obtained the remedy, there is no controversy or case in this case. Moreover, this case does not present a question that is “capable of repetition” yet evading review. DeFunis will never again be required to attack the law school’s admission policy because he will graduate shortly. Even if the admissions procedures remain unchanged, there is no reason to assume that a subsequent case attacking those procedures will not come with relative speed to the Court.

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