Not a moot point

I spotted what I thought was an odd usage of the word moot in an article in last week's New York Times about a Senate bill that would "end what has become known as the “widow penalty” — the government’s practice of annulling foreigners’ applications for permanent residency when their American spouses die before the marriage is two years old." Some of the spouses affected by the widow penalty had sued over it, but:

The bill approved Tuesday would appear to moot Ms. Robinson’s case, along with about a dozen similar court cases around the country that are challenging the widow penalty.

I'd never seen moot used that way as a verb. The American Heritage Dictionary has these definitions for it as a transitive verb:

  • 1a. To bring up as a subject for discussion or debate.
  • 1b. To discuss or debate.
  • 2. Law. To plead or argue (a case) in a moot court.

But nothing in the sense of making the case unnecessary. That sense compares to the AHD's second definition of moot as an adjective, as in a moot point:

  • 1. Subject to debate; arguable: a moot question.
  • 2a. Law. Without legal significance, through having been previously decided or settled.
  • 2b. Of no practical importance; irrelevant.

I scanned through the much larger set of definitions for moot in the OED and couldn't find any for moot as a verb meaning to make irrelevant or unnecessary.

So I then checked my Garner's Modern American Usage. Although the book is for a general audience, Garner's background is in law and the book has a lot of good entries on law-related words that dictionaries do not explore as fully. On moot as a verb, Garner says:

Historically, the verb "moot" meant "to raise or bring forward (a point, question, candidate, etc.) for discussion." That sense was formerly used in American English, but today it is current only in British English.

In American legal usage, a new sense of "moot" has taken hold: "to render (a question) moot or of no practical significance" (Black's Law Dictionary [9th ed. 2009]). E.g.: "A challenge to an abortion statute will be mooted after nine months by the birth of the child." William M. Landes & Richard A. Posner, "The Economics of Anticipatory Adjudication," J. Legal Studies 683, 717 (1994).

So the NYT article's usage was not incorrect, just unfamiliar to me. (That could be another subtitle for this blog. Good thing I like learning this stuff.)

All of these usages derive from moot as a noun, defined by the AHD as:

  • 1. Law. A hypothetical case argued by law students as an exercise.
  • 2. An ancient English meeting, especially a representative meeting of the freemen of a shire.

The second definition is the original meaning of moot, from which all the rest evolved. OED says the use of moot for the English meetings goes back to the 12th century.