No. 95-974

Argued: December 4, 1996Decided: March 3, 1997

Maria Kelly F. Yniguez, an Arizona state employee at the time, sued the State and its Governor, Attorney General, and Director of the Department of Administration under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that State Constitution Article XXVIII–key provisions of which declare English “the official language of the State,” require the State to “act in English and in no other language,” and authorize state residents and businesses “to bring [state court] suit[s] to enforce th[e] Article”–violated, inter alia, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Yniguez used both English and Spanish in her work and feared that Article XXVIII, if read broadly, would require her to face discharge or other discipline if she did not refrain from speaking Spanish while serving the State. She requested injunctive and declaratory relief, counsel fees, and “all other relief that the Court deems just and proper.” During the early phases of the suit, the State Attorney General released an Opinion expressing his view that Article XXVIII is constitutional in that, although it requires the expression of “official acts” in English, it allows government employees to use other languages to facilitate the delivery of governmental services. The Federal District Court heard testimony and, among its rulings, determined that only the Governor, in her official capacity, was a proper defendant. The court, at the same time, dismissed the State because of its Eleventh Amendment immunity, the State Attorney General because he had no authority to enforce Article XXVIII against state employees, and the Director because there was no showing that she had undertaken or threatened any action adverse to Yniguez; rejected the Attorney General’s interpretation of the Article on the ground that it conflicted with the measure’s plain language; declaredthe Article fatally overbroad after reading it to impose a sweeping ban on the use of any language other than English by all of Arizona officialdom; and declined to allow the Arizona courts the initial opportunity to determine the scope of Article XXVIII. Following the Governor’s announcement that she would not appeal, the District Court denied the State Attorney General’s request to certify the pivotal state law question–the Article’s correct construction–to the Arizona Supreme Court. The District Court also denied the State Attorney General’s motion to intervene on behalf of the State, under 28 U.S.C. § 2403(b), to contest on appeal the court’s holding that the Article is unconstitutional. In addition, the court denied the motion of newcomers Arizonans for Official English Committee (AOE) and its Chairman Park, sponsors of the ballot initiative that became Article XXVIII, to intervene to support the Article’s constitutionality. The day after AOE, Park, and the State Attorney General filed their notices of appeal, Yniguez resigned from state employment to accept a job in the private sector. The Ninth Circuit then concluded that AOE and Park met standing requirements under Article III of the Federal Constitution and could proceed as party appellants, and that the Attorney General, having successfully obtained dismissal below, could not reenter as a party, but could present an argument, pursuant to §2403(b), regarding the constitutionality of Article XXVIII. Thereafter, the State Attorney General informed the Ninth Circuit of Yniguez’s resignation and suggested that, for lack of a viable plaintiff, the case was moot. The court disagreed, holding that a plea for nominal damages could be read into the complaint’s “all other relief” clause to save the case. The en banc Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed the District Court’s ruling that Article XXVIII was unconstitutional, and announced that Yniguez was entitled to nominal damages from the State. Finding the Article’s “plain language” dispositive, and noting that the State Attorney General had never conceded that the Article would be unconstitutional if construed as Yniguez asserted it should be, the Court of Appeals also rejected the Attorney General’s limiting construction of the Article and declined to certify the matter to the State Supreme Court. Finally, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged a state court challenge to Article XXVIII’s constitutionality, Ruiz v. State, but found that litigation no cause to stay the federal proceedings.

Held: Because the case was moot and should not have been retained for adjudication on the merits, the Court vacates the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remands the case with directions that the action be dismissed by the District Court. This Court expresses no view on the correct interpretation of Article XXVIII or on the measure’s constitutionality. Pp. 18-35.

(a) Grave doubts exist as to the standing of petitioners AOE and Park to pursue appellate review under Article III’s case or controversy requirement. Standing to defend on appeal in the place of an original defendant demands that the litigant possess “a direct stake in the outcome.” Diamond v. Charles, 476 U.S. 54, 62 . Petitioners’ primary argument–that, as initiative proponents, they have a quasi legislative interest in defending the measure they successfully sponsored–is dubious because they are not elected state legislators, authorized by state law to represent the State’s interests, see Karcher v. May, 484 U.S. 72, 82 . Furthermore, this Court has never identified initiative proponents as Article III qualified defenders. Cf. Don’t Bankrupt Washington Committee v. Continental Ill. Nat. Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago, 460 U.S. 1077 . Their assertion of representational or associational standing is also problematic, absent the concrete injury that would confer standing upon AOE members in their own right, see, e.g., Food and Commercial Workers v. Brown Group, Inc., 517 U. S. ___, ___, and absent anything in Article XXVIII’s state court citizen suit provision that could support standing for Arizona residents in general, or AOE in particular, to defend the Article’s constitutionality in federal court. Nevertheless, this Court need not definitively resolve the standing of AOE and Park to proceed as they did, but assumes such standing arguendo in order to analyze the question of mootness occasioned by originating plaintiff Yniguez’s departure from state employment. See, e.g., Burke v. Barnes, 479 U.S. 361, 363 , 364, n. Pp. 18-21.

(b) Because Yniguez no longer satisfies the case or controversy requirement, this case is moot. To qualify as a case fit for federal court adjudication, an actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed. E.g., Preiser v. Newkirk, 422 U.S. 395, 401 . Although Yniguez had a viable claim at the outset of this litigation, her resignation from public sector employment to pursue work in the private sector, where her speech was not governed by Article XXVIII, mooted the case stated in her complaint. Cf. Boyle v. Landry, 401 U.S. 77, 78 , 80-81. Contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, her implied plea for nominal damages, which the Ninth Circuit approved as against the State of Arizona, could not revive the case, as §1983 actions do not lie against a State, Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 ; Arizona was permitted to participate in the appeal only as an intervenor, through its Attorney General, not as a party subject to an obligation to pay damages; and the State’s cooperation with Yniguez in waiving Eleventh Amendment immunity did not recreate a live case or controversy fit for federal court adjudication, cf., e.g., United States v. Johnson, 319 U.S. 302, 304 . Pp. 21-26.

(c) When a civil case becomes moot pending appellate adjudication, the established practice in the federal system is to reverse or vacate the judgment below and remand with a direction to dismiss. United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U.S. 36, 39 . This Court is not disarmed from that course by the State Attorney General’s failure to petition for certiorari. The Court has an obligation to inquire not only into its own authority to decide the questions presented, but to consider also the authority of the lower courts to proceed, even though the parties are prepared to concede it. E.g., Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 541 . Because the Ninth Circuit refused to stop the adjudication when it learned of the mooting event–Yniguez’s departure from public employment–its unwarranted en banc judgment must be set aside. Nor is the District Court’s judgment saved by its entry before the occurrence of the mooting event or by the Governor’s refusal to appeal from it. AOE and Park had an arguable basis for seeking appellate review; moreover, the State Attorney General’s renewed certification plea and his motion to intervene in this litigation demonstrate that he was pursuing his §2403(b) right to defend Article XXVIII’s constitutionality when the mooting event occurred. His disclosure of that event to the Ninth Circuit warranted a mootness disposition, which would have stopped his §2403(b) endeavor and justified vacation of the District Court’s judgment. The extraordinary course of this litigation and the federalism concern next considered lead to the conclusion that vacatur down the line is the equitable solution. Pp. 26-30.

(d) Taking into account the novelty of the question of Article XXVIII’s meaning, its potential importance to the conduct of Arizona’s business, the State Attorney General’s views on the subject, and the at least partial agreement with those views by the Article’s sponsors, more respectful consideration should have been given to the Attorney General’s requests to seek, through certification, an authoritative construction of the Article from the State Supreme Court. When anticipatory relief is sought in federal court against a state statute, respect for the place of the States in our federal system calls for close consideration of the question whether conflict is avoidable. Federal courts are not well equipped to rule on a state statute’s constitutionality without a controlling interpretation of the statute’s meaning and effect by the state courts. See, e.g., Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497, 526 (Harlan, J., dissenting). Certification saves time, energy, and resources and helps build a cooperative judicial federalism. See e.g., Lehman Brothers v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386, 391 . Contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s suggestion, this Court’s decisions do not require as a condition precedent to certification a concession by the Attorney General that Article XXVIII would be unconstitutional if construed as Yniguezcontended it should be. Moreover, that court improperly blended abstention with certification when it found that “unique circumstances,” rather than simply a novel or unsettled state law question, are necessary before federal courts may employ certification. The Arizona Supreme Court has before it, in Ruiz v. State, the question: What does Article XXVIII mean? Once that court has spoken, adjudication of any remaining federal constitutional question may be “greatly simplifie[d].” See Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 151 . Pp. 30-35.