DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974)


DeFunis​ ​v.​ ​Odegaard.​ ​​ ​416​ ​U.S.​ ​312 was a U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case that debated the constitutionality of a court adjudicating on a moot case if the case deals with a major social issue. Cornell’s Wex legal dictionary describes “Moot” as “…legal actions cannot be brought or continued after the matter at issue has been resolved, leaving no live dispute for a court to resolve. In such a case, the matter is said to be “moot”.” The U.S. Supreme Court decided in Defunis v. Odegaard that there must an actual legal conflict in a case for a court to constitutionally adjudicate on a case no matter the social significance of said case. As described in the U.S. Constitution Article III, Section 2,

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting… between Citizens of the same State …

In the instance of DeFunis v. Odegaard, the plantiff, DeFunis, was initially denied entry to University of Washington law school (UWLS), and sued on the basis that affirmative action policies had discriminated against him. DeFunis initially won the case to be admitted into UWLS, and by the time SCOTUS had heard the case, DeFunis was going to complete his final term which had rendered the whole case as moot.

First Timeline


Marco DeFunis, a Caucasian student, applied for UWLS in Spring of 1970. During this time, the school was only able to allow 150 students. Initially, DeFunis was placed on the waiting list to be admitted to the law school but was ultimately denied admission. DeFunis re-applied, and was rejected again. DeFunis felt that minority students less qualified than him were admitted into the school’s limited slots because of affirmative action admission policies. He filed a suit against UWLS as he felt that their admission policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. DeFunis seeked to have the courts declare UWLS’s admission policies unconstitutional, and be allowed into the school. DeFunis named the President of UW, Charles Odegaard, as the defendant in the case. The Superior Court of Washington agreed with DeFunis’s arguments and orders that the law school admits him in the Fall of 1971. During the whole of the appeals process, DeFunis attended UWLS actively. 

Procedural History

In 1970, DeFunis filed suit against UWLS in Superior Court of Washington. The President of UW, Charles Odegaard, is named the defendant in the case. DeFunis seeked to have the trial court declare the school’s admission policy unconstitutional, and force them to admit him into law school. Additionally, DeFunis also seeked monetary compensation.

In 1971, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled in favor of DeFunis. He is set to start school at UWLS in September of 1971.

On February 15th,1972, UW, displeased with the court’s decision, files for an appeal in the Supreme Court of Washington (SCOW). SCOW ruled that UWLS’s admission policies did not violate DeFunis’s 14th Amendment rights, and overturned the trial court’s ruling.

On May 12th, 1972, SCOW ruled that UWLS’s admissions policy did not violate DeFunis’s 14th Amendment rights. SCOW overturns the trial courts decision. DeFunis would appeal the SCOW ruling to SCOTUS.

In 1973, SCOTUS issues a Writ of Certiorari for DeFunis v. Odegaard.

On February 26th, 1974 SCOTUS hears arguments on the case.

On April 23rd, 1974 SCOTUS finds that the case is moot which upholds the ruling from SCOW. SCOTUS decided that no matter their ruling on the case, DeFunis would graduate from UWLS, so there was no real legal issue to be resolved between the parties.


1) Was the case in question moot and therefore outside the scope of judicial review?

2) Is it constitutional for a court to adjudicate on a case that is moot if that case pertains to a major social issues?

3) Does affirmative action policies violated 14th Amendment Equal Protection rights?

Arguments by Petitioner

DeFunis presented information that UWLS used two sets of admission standards while selecting students. Applying students were separated into two groups based on race. The first group of students were white, while the second contained minorities. The students were compared to each other within their respective group to determine admission into UWLS. The minority group of students were given preferential treatment during their selection process. Students in this second group were shown to have lower test scores, and thus less qualified than DeFunis. Due to special consideration given to the second group, DeFunis argued that his rights were violated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Arguments by Respondent

UWLS admission policies are not unconstitutional as it does not aim to give preferential treatment to minorities, but instead ensures that education opportunities exists for minority groups.


In a 5-4 Decision, the case was dismissed. After determining that the case was moot, the court decided that it was unconstitutional to adjudicate on the case. Justices Burger, Stewart, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist were on the majority Per Curiam decision. Justice Douglas dissented under his own opinion. Justices Brennan, White, and Marshall dissented together under another opinion.

Majority Opinion (Per Curiam)

In the Per Curiam decision, Justices Burger, Stewart, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist joined together. As stated in the Opinion,

In short, all parties agree that DeFunis is now entitled to complete his legal studies at the University of Washington and to receive his degree from that institution. A determination by this Court of the legal issues tendered by the parties is no longer necessary to compel that result, and could not serve to prevent it.

In essence, the majority court saw that DeFunis was going to complete his degree at UWLS, and any decision rendered by the court would not affect this. The court states that since the case is moot, it is unconstitutional for the court adjudicate on it. As it follows in the opinion,

Because the petitioner will complete his law school studies at the end of the term for which he has now registered regardless of any decision this Court might reach on the merits of this litigation, we conclude that the Court cannot, consistently with the limitations of Art. III of the Constitution, consider the substantive constitutional issues tendered by the parties.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas)

While there is no legal conflict between the two parties, the case should be judged on its merits. Based on this the case is not moot. Justice Douglas argues that the current admissions process (To include the LSAT test) does not perform adequately, and should be replaced. Instead of having a LSAT test, there should be a test that more accurately measures individual circumstances that is race neutral. In essence, an individual who has overcome hardships would be given extra consideration in admission, and this would be able to apply to anyone. Justice Douglas felt that restructuring testing methods would eliminate affirmative action, which would give everyone a specialized consideration rather than just minorities.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennen)

While DeFunis was on track to graduate, some unforeseen incident could cause DeFunis to drop out (major injury, illness, etc.). If this were to occur, there is no guarantee that DeFunis would not have to reapply for admission into University of Washington Law School. Based on this, the case is not actually moot. Additionally, a similar case could arise in the future which would require adjudication. It is better to address the issue now rather than wait for the case to occur again in the future. Not only does the court have a compelling interested to judge on affirmative action now, but the public interest is so great, that judgement should occur. As follows in the opinion,

Moreover, in endeavoring to dispose of this case as moot, the Court clearly disserves the public interest. The constitutional issues which are avoided today concern vast numbers of people, organizations, and colleges and universities, as evidenced by the filing of twenty-six amicus curiae briefs. Few constitutional questions in recent history have stirred as much debate, and they will not disappear. They must inevitably return to the federal courts, and ultimately again to this Court.

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis


The significance of this case is that if a case is deemed moot, SCOTUS has no constitutional right to review it. In a 5-4 split decision SCOTUS deemed DeFunis v. Odegaard moot due to the fact that DeFunis would graduate from UWLS regardless of the court’s decision. This case’s popularity arose because of the underline social issue of affirmative action. UWLS denied admission to DeFunis and he challenged the school’s admission policy by suing the school. DeFunis felt that the affirmative action policies of the school gave favoritism to under-performing students because they were minorities. By the time case was heard in SCOTUS, DeFunis had progressed far enough in UWLS to graduate. SCOTUS determined that there was no legal contention or conflict that existed between the two parties involved in the suit, the case was moot. The greatest impact of this case was the issue of continuing adjudication on cases that have societal significance, but are moot. While DeFunis specifically blamed affirmative action for his initial rejection from UWLS, this did not matter once SCOTUS deemed the case moot. The whole of the court agreed that affirmative action was a subject of social importance, but the majority of the court decided that the case was moot, and therefor could not be legally adjudicated on. DeFunis v. Odegaard set the precedent that cases could not be adjudicated on if is moot, or lack of legal conflict.

SCOTUS decided that a case could not be adjudicated on just because the social impact it may contain. The United States had a goal of diversifying several public entities such as schools of secondary education. The school admissions department sought out people of color, low economic backgrounds, who would most likely never get into the school. Allowing someone who would otherwise have to attend an all-black college ultimately denies entry to someone who would have gotten the entry slot without the impact of affirmative action. Allowing minorities entry into UWLS was a compelling interest of the state. The school admitted that affirmative action was a reason for them to allow minority students in when they otherwise would have not been. This case remains as the guideline to dealing with cases that are moot. Many cases today that deal with affirmative actions also refers back to the dissent of Justice Douglas in DeFunis v Odegaard. The government could simply not give persons who are citizens their rights and freedoms under the Equal Protection Clause. Affirmative action is a controversial issue with many positive and negative aspects. The overall social impact is that the courts cannot judge on matters of social importance without a proper legal standing to do so. SCOTUS would not hear another affirmative action case until four years later at Bakke v California.

Second Timeline

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

Article 3 Section 2: The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;—between a State and Citizens of another State;—between Citizens of different States;—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed

Government Law or Action Under Review

No Major Statute is under Review in Defunis v. Odegaard. (The issue being addressed in this case is whether it is constitutional for courts to adjudicate on a moot case. Though affirmative action is specifically addressed by Defunis v. Odegaard, it is not actually under review by the Supreme Court.)  

Important Precedents

  • Southern Pacific Terminal Co. v. ICC (1911)
  • United States v. W. T. Grant Co. (1953)
  • Sibron v. New York (1968)
  • Powell v. McCormack (1969)
  • North Carolina v. Rice (1971)
  • Powell v. McCormack (1969)

Important Subsequent Cases

  • Craig v. Boren (1976)
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)
  • County of Los Angeles v Davis (1979)
  • Iron Arrow Honor Society v. Heckler, Secretary Of Health and Human Services (1983)
  • U.S Department of Justice v. Provenzano (1984)
  • Lake Coal Co Inc. v. Roberts & Schafer Co. (1985)
  • Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)
  • Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
  • Turner v. Rogers (2011)
  • Fisher v. University of Texas (2013)

Web Resources

Defunis v. Odegaard.  416 U.S. 312 (1974).

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“Wex Legal Dictionary: Moot” Cornell University Law School

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Wheeler, Sharae “DeFunis V. Odegaard: Another Kind of “Jewish Problem.” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. 2008

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DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312 (1974), on remand, 514 P.2d 438 (Wash. 1974).

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Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Duke Law. “Ameliorative Racial Classifications under the Equal Protection Clause: Defunis v. Odegaard.” Duke Law Journal 1973, no. 5 (1973): 1126-152.

Martin, Charles A. “Editorial Comment: DeFunis V. Odegaard and the Holmes Memorandum-The Practice of Contemporary Racism.” The Journal of Negro Education 44, no. 2 (1975): 109-12.


Summer 2016: Gene Park, Porschea Dickson, Destany Green, Natasha Carter

Tasks for Future Contributors

Add Decision Analysis section.

Add Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Add pictures to timeline 1

Add months and day to dates in Procedural History

Hyperlink items under Important Precedents and Important Subsequent Cases to articles within conlawpedia.

Expand on Arguments by Petitioner section

Expand on Arguments by Respondent

Add cases that mention DeFunis v. Odegaard to Timeline 2