Political Question

Political Question in the United States

An issue that is not justiciable or not appropriate for judicial determination. A political question is one in which the substance of an issue is primarily political or involves a matter directed toward either the legislative or executive branch by constitutional language. The doctrine the Supreme Court has fashioned for political questions emanates from the concept of judicial self-restraint. When a political question exists, the doctrine requires judicial deference to the prerogatives of the other branches. While the scope of the political question category has varied over time, examples of those issues generally accorded political question status include certain foreign policy decisions, determination of whether the form of government in a state is “republican,” governance matters internal to legislative bodies such as determining committee assignments, and proceedings of national party nominating conventions. Until 1962, the Supreme Court justified its refusal to intervene in legislative apportionment issues on political question grounds.

See Also

Judicial Self-Restraint (Apellate Judicial Process) Justiciable Issue (Apellate Judicial Process).

Analysis and Relevance

The political question doctrine is sometimes invoked by the Supreme Court not because the Court is without power or jurisdiction but because the Court adjudges the question inappropriate for judicial response. In the Court’s view, to intervene or respond would be to encroach upon the functions and prerogatives of one of the other two branches of government. Moreover, such encroachment would constitute a breach of the principle of separation of powers. In Luther v. Borden (7 Howard 1: 1849), the Court was asked to rule on the status of Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island. The Court refused to do so, holding that the guarantee clause of Article IV had committed the issue to Congress rather than the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Taney said it is the duty of the Court “not to pass beyond its appropriate sphere of action, and to take care not to involve itself in discussions which properly belong to other forums.” Justice Brennan was more precise in characterizing a political question in Baker v. Carr (369 U.S. 186: 1962), the first case in which the Court held legislative apportionment to be a justiciable issue. Justice Brennan described a political question as one with a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicial discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it.” He added that such questions typically require a “policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.” On such matters the court cannot undertake “independent resolution without expressing lack of respect due coordinate branches of the government.”

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Political Question from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

political question Background

Political Question: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Political Question. This part provides references, in relation to Political Question, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Political Question by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Political Question and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Political Question or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Political Question and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Political Question. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Political Question should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Political Question when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

Leave a Comment