On May 26, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Camreta v. Greene, No. 09-1454, holding that the Supreme Court may review a lower court's constitutional ruling that was adverse to governmental officials even though the officials ultimately prevailed in the case on qualified-immunity grounds, because the officials have a personal stake in the lawsuit and an interest in reversing a determination that they violated the Constitution.
Camreta and a colleague are state officials who interviewed a nine-year-old girl about allegations that her father had sexually abused her. The officials did not have a warrant, a court order, or parental consent authorizing them to question the girl. The girl's mother later sued the officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that their questioning of the girl was an unreasonable seizure that violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court granted summary judgment to the officials. The Ninth Circuit affirmed on the ground that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity. But the Ninth Circuit reached that conclusion only after first holding that the officials had violated the Fourth Amendment when they questioned the girl. Despite the usual rule that only litigants who lost in the lower court may pursue an appeal, the officials asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
The Court held that the officials had standing to pursue an appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1254 even though they were the prevailing parties below, because they had an ongoing interest in the case. The Ninth Circuit ruled that they had violated the Constitution—a ruling that would require them to change the way they do their job in the future. The Court stressed that its ruling in this case was narrow, in two respects. First, the holding concerned only the Supreme Court's review of a lower court's decision, not an appellate court's ability to review a trial court's judgment at the behest of an official who prevailed on qualified-immunity grounds. Second, the holding deals only with what the Court may review, not what it will choose to review in the future.
But the Supreme Court ended up dismissing the case on a different jurisdictional ground: mootness. The Court held that while the officials have an interest in getting a favorable ruling on the constitutional issue, the girl and her mother do not because the girl is about to turn 18, which means that she is not likely to be subjected to the alleged wrongful behavior (i.e., being questioned as a minor without a warrant, court order, or parental consent) in the future. The Court vacated the Ninth Circuit's judgment on the constitutional issue.
Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, and Alito joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined.