One of the federal court districts in California has a policy of placing full shackles on people during court proceedings. Criminal defendants must wear chains (handcuffs attached to a waist chain attached to foot shackles) before they are even convicted of crimes. The U.S. Marshals Service, responsible for court safety, justified the practice with “safety concerns arising from understaffing, past incidents of violence, and the high volume of in-custody defendants produced in the Southern District.”
Four people who faced these practices (supported by public defenders who see the issue affect many more) challenged the practice as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court wasn’t poised to determine the constitutionality of the shackling practice. The appeals court (9th Circuit) had already ruled in favor of the challengers (Sanchez-Gomez and three others) and ordered the practice to be stopped. However, the U.S. argued the case shouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place. The U.S. argued the challengers’ case was “moot.” And they were right.
According to the Constitution, courts can only hear live “cases or controversies.” When a person brings a case, the person complains of an illegal practice and then asks the court to grant relief. A person cannot request relief on behalf of someone else. The complainant must have a personal stake in the outcome. Furthermore, the need for the relief must remain throughout the case. Once the relief is no longer necessary, the case becomes “moot.”
That was the problem in this case. The four challengers to the shackling practice initially had a stake. They needed relief during their pre-conviction periods (while they were being shackled). But once their pre-conviction periods were over, they were no longer facing pre-conviction shackling. They no longer needed relief.
The Class Action Exception: But so many other people still need the relief.
It’s true that this case was brought by four people, but the resolution of it would have benefited many more: namely, all of the people who will face pre-conviction shackling. So, in a sense, it’s like a class action case. It seeks to create large-scale change.
Class actions have a special feature that allows them to avoid mootness. In a class action, the court allows certain class representatives to seek relief on behalf of a whole group of people. Once a class is certified, even if the class representatives’ issues are “mooted out,” the case does not get dismissed as moot because there continue to be people in the larger group who need relief.
The 9th Circuit had said that this case was like a class action in that regard, so it could avoid mootness in the same way. But the Supreme Court said no. That feature is reserved for proper class actions (cases that are certified by courts by meeting certain strict qualifications). This case was not certified; it was not a class action; and it cannot avoid mootness.
The Capable-of-Repetition Exception: The practice is inherently short-lived; It’ll never last through a litigation.
Because legal proceedings take a while, there are some practices that’ll never continue long enough to make it past mootness. The capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review mootness exception covers that. Consider Roe v. Wade, for example. Pregnancy only lasts nine months. And a major litigation could take much longer. But because Roe was capable of getting pregnant again and facing the same issue (being prohibited from getting an abortion), the case avoided mootness under this exception.
That’s the other mootness exception the challengers tried for. But the Court was unwilling to grant it. The court said we cannot assume the four people in this case will get arrested again and be subject to pre-conviction shackling. It’s too hypothetical. No exception here.
The Supreme Court dismissed the case. Here is a link to the opinion.