Political question

In United States constitutional law, the political question doctrine is closely linked to the concept of justiciability, as it comes down to a question of whether or not the court system is an appropriate forum in which to hear the case. This is because the court system only has authority to hear and decide a legal question, not a political question. Legal questions are deemed to be justiciable, while political questions are nonjusticiable.[1] One scholar explained:

The political question doctrine holds that some questions, in their nature, are fundamentally political, and not legal, and if a question is fundamentally political ... then the court will refuse to hear that case. It will claim that it doesn't have jurisdiction. And it will leave that question to some other aspect of the political process to settle out.

John E. Finn, professor of government, 2006[2]

A ruling of nonjusticiability ultimately prohibits the issue that brings the case before the court from a resolution in a court of law. In the typical case where there is a finding of nonjusticiability due to the political question doctrine, the issue presented before the court is usually so specific that the Constitution gives all power to one of the coordinate political branches, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, the issue presented is so vague that the United States Constitution does not even consider it. A court can only decide issues based on law. The Constitution dictates the different legal responsibilities of each respective branch of government. If there is an issue where the court does not have the Constitution as a guide, there are no legal criteria to use. When there are no specific constitutional duties involved, the issue is to be decided through the democratic process. The court will not engage in political disputes.

A constitutional dispute that requires knowledge of a non-legal character or the use of techniques not suitable for a court or explicitly assigned by the Constitution to the U.S. Congress, or the President of the United States, is a political question, which judges customarily refuse to address.


The doctrine has its roots in the historic Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).[3] In that case, Chief Justice John Marshall drew a distinction between two different functions of the U.S. Secretary of State. Marshall stated that when the Secretary of State was performing a purely discretionary matter, such as advising the President on matters of policy, he was not held to any legally identifiable standards. Therefore, some of the Secretary's actions are unable to be reviewed by a court of law.

The doctrine is grounded in the federal judiciary's desire to avoid inserting itself into conflicts between branches of the federal government. It is justified by the notion that there exist some questions best resolved through the political process, voters approving or correcting the challenged action by voting for or against those involved in the decision.

Leading authority

The leading Supreme Court case in the area of the political question doctrine is Baker v. Carr (1962).[4] In the opinion written for Baker, the Court outlined six characteristics of a political question. These include:

  • A "textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or"
  • A "lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or"
  • The "impossibility for a court's independent resolution without expressing a lack of respect for a coordinate branch of the government; or"
  • The "impossibility of deciding the issue without an initial policy decision, which is beyond the discretion of the court; or"
  • An "unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or"
  • The "potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question."

Other applications

While this is a still rather unsettled doctrine, its application has been settled in a few decided areas. These areas are:

The Guarantee Clause

The Guarantee Clause, Article IV, section 4, requires the federal government to "guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government". The Supreme Court has declared that this Clause does not imply any set of "judicially manageable standards which a court could utilize independently in order to identify a State's lawful government".[5]


Article I, section 2 of the Constitution states that the House "shall have the sole power of Impeachment", and Article I, section 3 provides that the "Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments".[6] Since the Constitution placed the sole power of impeachment in two political bodies, it is qualified as a political question. As a result, neither the decision of the House to impeach nor a vote of the Senate to remove a President or any other official can be appealed to any court. [7]

Foreign policy and war

  • A court will not usually decide if a treaty has been terminated, because on that issue, "governmental action ... must be regarded as of controlling importance".[8] However, courts sometimes do rule on the issue. One example of this is native American tribes who have been officially terminated do not lose their treaty concessions without explicit text from congress that the treaty is also abrogated.
  • Given the sensitive problems of holding a war to be illegal, most issues relating to the constitutionality of a war may well be nonjusticiable, a notable example being the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Schlesinger v. Holtzman.


  • In the case of Davis v. Bandemer (1986),[9] the Supreme Court held that gerrymandering cases were justiciable under the Equal Protection Clause. The precedential power of this case is still unclear.
  • Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) held claims of partisan gerrymandering nonjusticiable because a discernible and manageable standard for adjudicating them had not been established or applied since Davis v. Bandemer. However, Justice Kennedy stated in his concurring opinion that judicially manageable standards for gerrymandering could be developed in future cases.[10]
  • Gill v. Whitford and Benisek v. Lamone (2017) were decided without taking a final stance on partisan gerrymandering.[11]
  • Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek (2019) were decided together on June 27, 2019, where a 5-4 majority concluded partisan gerrymandering was a political question and nonjusticiable by federal courts.

Private military contractors

  • In the case of Ghane v. Mid-South (January 16, 2014),[12] the Mississippi Supreme Court held that a wrongful death action against a private military company by the family of a deceased United States Navy SEAL could proceed under Mississippi law since the plaintiff's claims did not present a non-justiciable political question under Baker v. Carr (1962).[4]

Court cases

Important cases discussing the political question doctrine:

Beyond the United States

The political question doctrine has also had significance beyond American constitutional law.

International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights

Before international courts, the International Court of Justice has dealt with the doctrine in its advisory function, and the European Court of Human Rights has engaged with the doctrine through the margin of appreciation.[13]

Court of Justice of the European Union

Within European Union law, the Court of Justice of the European Union has never addressed the political question doctrine in its jurisprudence explicitly, yet it has been argued that there are traces of the doctrine present in its rulings.[14]


  1. Huhn, Wilson R. American Constitutional Law Volume 1. 2016.
  2. John E. Finn (2016). "Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights". The Teaching Company. Part I: Lecture 4: The Court and Constitutional Interpretation (see page 55 in the guidebook)
  3. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).
  4. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962).
  5. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 223 (1962).
  6. United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2-3.
  7. Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993)
  8. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 212. (1962).
  9. Davis v. Bandemer, 478 U.S. 109 (1986).
  10. Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267 (2004)
  11. Liptak, Adam (June 18, 2018). "Supreme Court Sidesteps Decision on Partisan Gerrymandering". The New York Times. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  12. Narjess Ghane, et al v. Mid-South Institute of Self Defense Shooting; JFS, LLC; John Fred Shaw; Donald Ross Sanders, Jr.; and Jim Cowan (Miss.2014)
  13. Odermatt, Jed (2018). "Patterns of avoidance: political questions before international courts" (PDF). International Journal of Law in Context. 14 (2): 221–236. doi:10.1017/S1744552318000046.
  14. Butler, Graham (9 November 2018). "In Search of the Political Question Doctrine in EU Law". Legal Issues of Economic Integration. 45 (4): 329–354. Retrieved 9 November 2018.

Further reading

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