Supreme Court Wastes Time, Money, and Opportunity to Protect Property Rights and Due Process

Yesterday the Supreme Court released its first four opinions in cases argued this term, the latest first-opinion release in recent history.  The only one that interests me – and it’s not Justice Sotomayor’s maiden effort – is the civil forfeiture case, Alvarez v. Smith.

Civil forfeiture, the practice in which the police seize cars, money and other kinds of property that they say has some connection to crime, can raise various legal and policy issues — from property rights to due process.  The question in Alvarez was the basic one of whether people seeking to get their property back are entitled to a prompt hearing before a judge.

I blogged about the case here, and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin wrote about it here. Cato’s also filed a brief in the case supporting the individuals whose property was seized.

Unfortunately, because all underlying disputes had been resolved by the time of oral argument – cars had been returned and the individuals have either forfeited their cash or accepted the state’s return of some of it – the Court determined the case to be moot.  It thus vacated the lower court’s opinion and remanded with instructions for that court to dismiss the case.

And that’s a shame.  While the dispute does seem to be moot with respect to the particular petitioners, this is obviously a situation “capable of repetition” but “evading review” – along the lines of that little-known case of Roe v. Wade.  That is, just like the case of a pregnant woman is moot within nine months, disputes over civil forfeiture get resolved one way or the other long before the slow turn of litigation reaches the Supreme Court.  By avoiding the merits of this case, the Court guarantees that the important constitutional questions presented by this case remain perpetually unresolved.

What is more, by vacating the Seventh Circuit’s opinion – an extraordinary remedy – the Court deprives Illinoisans of a well-reasoned and just ruling that could be used as precedent in future cases.  It also – and this is no small matter – wastes the time, effort, and resources of the parties and their attorneys, taxpayers (who obviously paid for the petitioners’ legal work here, as well as that of the judiciary), and, of course, amici (including Cato).

Justice Stevens was correct in his partial dissent: if the Court disagrees with the argument I made in the preceding paragraph, it should have applied the general rule against vacating judgments that have become moot because the parties settled.  The proper disposition here would have been to DIG the case – dismiss the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted (which allows the lower court ruling to remain on the books undisturbed).