Catholic Chaplain’s Lawsuit over Gov’t Shutdown Dismissed

Father Ray Leonard is a civilian contract chaplain who filed a lawsuit after the US military refused to allow him to perform services during the budget crisis known as the “government shutdown” last year.

Father Leonard’s lawsuit has been dismissed as moot (PDF), essentially because the government allowed him to return to work after it re-opened.

Legally, if a defendant reverses a policy in response to a lawsuit, the courts will not (necessarily) consider the claim moot. In this case, however, the judge decided the military did not change its mind because of his lawsuit, but because the government re-opened. Paraphrased, this “mootness” exception says 

“A defendant’s voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice…In order for this exception to apply, the defendant’s voluntary cessation must have arisen because of the litigation…”

The government shutdown did not end because of this litigation, so this exception is inapplicable.

The judge’s explanation is odd, because the government shutdown wasn’t the issue preventing Father Leonard from providing services — it was the Department of Defense’s discretionary decision — and that decision did end because of the lawsuit.

As referenced in the original discussion, after the budget expired, Congress passed a law called the Pay Our Military Act that explicitly allowed DoD employees to be paid if they were “providing support to members of the Armed Forces.” It was the DoD’s interpretation of this bill that was the issue, because Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel interpreted it to mean that contract chaplains were not to return to work. Congress even passed a second resolution essentially saying the DoD was wrongly interpreting the law.

Leonard filed the suit on a Monday. On Tuesday, the DoJ said the DoD’s interpretation was wrong and he could return to work. It wasn’t until late Wednesday that the government was funded (re-opened).

In other words, it appears that the reversal of the restrictions on Leonard’s services — restrictions based on DoD decisions, not the government shutdown — was a direct result of his lawsuit, the very criteria that allow the exception to the mootness rule.

It’s an interesting legal discussion, but it seems the judge found it so unlikely to recur in the future he was disinterested in letting the suit continue:

The Court concludes…that there are simply too many contingencies that would need to occur simultaneously for this case to be considered “capable of repetition”…Because the likelihood that these events will reoccur is, at best, speculative, plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden of showing that they are “reasonably likely to suffer [the alleged] legal wrong again…”

With that, the case ends.

Via the Religion Clause.