Sunday, July 29, 2012

Case or Controversy

The term "Case or Controversy" when seen in a Constitutional Law question on the MBE, refers to the limitations on jurisdictions of federal courts. In other words, the jurisdiction of the federal courts is limited to cases or controversies. Three of the most heavily testable areas in this respect are the prohibition against advisory opinions, the doctrine of Mootness, and the doctrine of Ripeness.

Advisory opinions: The Supreme Court, and other federal courts will not give advisory opinions to either the President or to Congress. This will usually come up in a question in which the Supreme Court is asked about the constitutionality of some proposed legislation. Note that this prohibition only applies to federal courts; state courts may be allowed to render advisory opinions, if asked to do so. This prohibition should not be confused with the right of federal courts to grant declaratory judgments. A declaratory judgment is a decision where the court is requested to determine the legal effect of proposed conduct without awarding damages or injunctive relief. Unlike advisory opinions which are prohibited, declaratory judgments are allowable.

Mootness: If the controversy that is the subject of the case has already been resolved, then there is no case or controversy, and the case will be dismissed as moot. A commonly tested exception is where a particular controversy has been resolved, but where the injury is capable of repetition. A classic example is a pregnant woman wanting to challenge the constitutionality of an abortion statute. If the woman is no longer pregnant, it may seem that the controversy has been resolved, but since pregnancy is capable of repetition (and therefore she may be injured by the same statute at a later time), the case will not be deemed moot.

Ripeness: Federal courts will not decide constitutional issues before it is necessary to do so. In other words, the controversy must be ripe for review. Situations to look out for are fact patterns presenting a statute that has never been enforced, and that lacks any real threat that it ever will be enforced. In addition, the person bringing the case must show that he/she has suffered a present harm, or that there is a threat of future harm. This last point overlaps with the issue of "Standing," which is yet another limitation on a court's ability to hear the case.

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