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Law School Case Brief

Brown v. Buhman - 822 F.3d 1151 (10th Cir. 2016)

Rule:

A plaintiff's standing at the time of filing does not ensure the court will ultimately be able to decide the case on the merits. An actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed. If an intervening circumstance deprives the plaintiff of a personal stake in the outcome of the lawsuit, at any point during litigation, the action can no longer proceed and must be dismissed as moot. Mootness deprives federal courts of jurisdiction. If a case is moot, courts have no subject-matter jurisdiction. Constitutional mootness is jurisdictional; prudential mootness is discretionary. 

Facts:

Kody Brown, Meri Brown, Janelle Brown, Christine Brown, and Robyn Sullivan (Browns) form a "plural family." Kody Brown was legally married to Meri Brown and "spiritually married" to the other three women, whom he calls "sister wives." When the family became the subject of a TLC reality television show in 2010, the Lehi Police Department opened an investigation of the Browns for violating Utah's bigamy statute, which provided that a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he or she has a spouse or knowing the other person has a spouse, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person. The Browns then filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in federal district court against the Governor and Attorney General of the State of Utah and the Utah County Attorney. Claiming that Utah's bigamy statute infringed their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Browns sought declaratory relief and a permanent injunction enjoining enforcement of the statute against them. The district court dismissed the Governor and Attorney General. The Utah County Attorney's Office (UCAO) subsequently closed its file on the Browns and adopted a policy (UCAO Policy) under which the Utah County Attorney could bring bigamy prosecutions only against those who induce a partner to marry through misrepresentation or are suspected of committing a collateral crime such as fraud or abuse. The Browns did not fall into either category. Notwithstanding the adoption of the UCAO Policy, the district court denied the Utah County Attorney's motion to dismiss the case as moot, and instead, granted summary judgment to the Browns.

Issue:

Was the case properly dismissed as moot?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court held that the case became moot when the county attorney announced a policy that it would prosecute the crime of bigamy only if a victim was induced to marry through fraud or when there was also some type of abuse, violence, or fraud. According to the Court, the policy eliminated any credible threat that the Browns would be prosecuted, and thus, the threat of a prosecution was so speculative that a live controversy no longer existed for U.S. Const. art. III jurisdiction.

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