SCOTUS First Read Alvarez v. Smith: Minimalist Court punted on Mootness Grounds, Did Not Consider Property Rights/Due Process Issues. But why not DIG it if settled?

December 8th, 2009

I just finished skimming Alvarez v. Smith. This case asked whether local law enforcement agencies may seize and retain custody indefinitely of personal property without judicial or administrative review of the lawfulness of the continued detention of the property. See ScotusWIKI for background.

Rather than considering the due process issues, or commenting on the sanctity of property rights (see Ilya Somin’s articles on that topic (here, here, and here)  the Court punted it an reversed on mootness grounds. And not only did they dismiss on mootness grounds, but they vacated the lower opinion.

Why did the dismiss for mootness? Well, it seems the parties had already settled the case. From Justice Stevens’s concurrnece:

At the time we granted certiorari on February 23,2009, petitioner had already resolved the underlying property disputes for five of the six named respondents.See ante, at 4, 8–9. It was entirely predictable that thefinal settlement would soon follow.

So, why did the Supreme Court continue the case. Why wasn’t it DIG’d (Dismissed as Improvidently Granted)? Justice Stevens poses that question in his concurrence:

It has become clear that the Court was overhasty in deciding to review this case; the improvidence of our grant provides an additional reason why we should not vacate the work product of our colleagues on the Court of Appeals. I respectfully dissent from Part III [vacating lower opinion] of the Court’s opinion and from its judgment.

The Supreme Court’s mootness and vacate analysis didn’t break any new grounds. They found that this was not a Wisconsin Right to Life case of Capable of Repetition/Evading Review and because the mootness was due to a settlement, rather than “happenstance,” the losing party”surrender[ed] his claim to the equitable remedy of vacatur.”

Avoidance doctrines like standing and mootness always trouble me because they provide the Court with any easy out to consider broad and important Constitutional issues. Minimalists, in the Cass Sunstein camp, will likely praise this decision. But the Illinois law in question was absolutely egregious. The people in this case had their property taken from them for months and years without a hearing or a warrant. Because of this minimalist take, and this practice can continue.