[STEVE VLADECK for SCOTUSBLOG] Recent discussions of the Supreme Court’s upcoming term have understandably focused on the implications of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and the seemingly inevitable confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed her. At least some of that commentary, in turn, has raised the possibility of the court being called upon to potentially resolve the presidential election, or at least high-profile cases relating to it.
But the election looms over the upcoming term in at least one other (less sensational) respect: the number of cases that could potentially be mooted before they are decided, especially if there’s a change in administrations come January 2021. Indeed, although mootness is always a possibility during terms featuring presidential transitions, there are more disputes with potential mootness problems in the pipeline for the upcoming term than was true four years ago (when no granted cases were mooted by the shift in administrations). Thus, with the justices set to add cases to their docket in the coming weeks, including after Tuesday’s long conference, one possibility is for the court to be strategic not just in which cases it grants and when, but in how it schedules arguments in these cases — perhaps setting some of the potentially moot-able disputes for arguments in March and April rather than January and February. At the very least, the specter of mootness helps to underscore how something as mundane as when a case is scheduled for argument can sometimes have substantive implications.
Of the cases already on the docket, one potential candidate for mootness is Department of Justice v. House Committee on the Judiciary — the dispute over the House’s attempt to obtain grand jury materials related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as part of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Even if the dispute isn’t already moot (given that the impeachment investigation in which the materials had been sought is a thing of the past), the House goes home on Jan. 3, 2021 — just over one month after the Dec. 2 oral argument. Although the case does not involve a subpoena (which would automatically expire on Jan. 3), there’s at least the possibility that, rather than resolve a complex inter-branch dispute, the justices might seize upon the intervening election of a new House of Representatives as grounds for vacating the decisions below and dismissing the government’s appeal.
But it’s the cases in the cert-petition pipeline in which mootness seems an even greater consideration. Consider, for example, Wolf v. Innovation Law Lab, the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court rulings invalidating its “Migrant Protection Protocols” (known colloquially as the “Remain in Mexico” program). The petition is on the slate for consideration at the long conference on Tuesday. Assuming that the justices grant certiorari, the case would normally be on track for argument in January or February 2021. (Absent expedition, Supreme Court Rule 25 contemplates at least 115 days between a grant of certiorari and oral argument — 45 days for the opening brief, 30 days for a response, and 30 days for a reply that must be filed at least 10 days before the argument.)