When courts talk about ripeness and mootness they are referring to whether it is too early (the case is not yet ripe) or too late (the case is moot) for courts to decide the case. If a case is ripe the court is saying it is the right time to decide the case. If you look at the U.S. Constitution you will see that federal courts can only decide actual “cases and controversies” – – when a case is ripe and we have the right parties then the case is an actual case or controversy. The basic principle is that courts should issue decisions that will affect the parties.
Courts should not issue hypothetical decisions as to what should happen if certain events were to occur in the future or hypothetical decisions as to what should have happened in the past.
Here is an example of where a case is not yet ripe. Let’s say a plaintiff wants to build a store on a certain piece of property. But the city in which the plaintiff wants to build the store must first decide whether to allow the plaintiff to build the store or not. In October the plaintiff learns that the city will probably reject his application. The city will issue its final decision in November. Can the plaintiff sue the city in October? Probably not. The case is not ripe because the city has not issued its final decision. The plaintiff did not suffer any harm yet and is only predicting that he will suffer some harm in the future.
Mootness is where the court is not in a position to provide any relief – – it’s too late. This can happen if a law changes or if there is a change in a party’s status. A famous example of a case that the Supreme Court declared moot was where a plaintiff sued after he was denied admission to a law school. Later he was admitted to the law school. When the case came to the Supreme Court the plaintiff was already finishing his final year of law school. The Supreme Court said it could not decide the case because the case was moot. The plaintiff would never apply to the law school again – – the plaintiff no longer had a personal interest in the outcome of the case.
If you are trying to decide whether a case is moot or not, ask yourself, “Is the plaintiff still injured? Is it possible that the plaintiff could be harmed by the defendant in the same way again?” If the answer to both questions is “No” then the case is probably moot.