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.
Kody Brown, Meri Brown, Janelle Brown, Christine Brown, and Robyn Sullivan ("the Browns") form a "plural family." Kody Brown is 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. Under the aforementioned statute, a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, 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 the 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 subsequently closed its file on the Browns and adopted a policy under which the Utah County Attorney will 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 fall into neither category. Nonetheless, the district court denied the Utah County Attorney's motion to dismiss the case as moot and instead granted summary judgment to the Browns.
Did the district court err in denying the Utah County Attorney’s motion to dismiss the case in light of a new policy adopted by the Utah County Attorney's Office?
The Court held that the district court erred by proceeding to the merits. According to the Court, Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. They lack power to decide issues—however important or fiercely contested—that are detached from a live dispute between the parties. Following adoption of the UCAO Policy, the Court posited that the Browns' suit ceased to qualify as an Article III case or controversy. Their suit was moot before the district court awarded them relief, and the court therefore lacked jurisdiction to decide the Browns' claims.