In American 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. 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
A ruling of nonjusticiability will ultimately prohibit the issue that is bringing the case before the court from being able to be heard 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). 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.
The leading Supreme Court case in the area of political question doctrine is Baker v. Carr (1962). In the opinion written for Baker, the Court outlined six characteristics of a political question. These include:
While this is a still rather unsettled doctrine, its application has been settled in a few decided areas. These areas are:
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".
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". 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.
Important cases discussing the political question doctrine:
Part I: Lecture 4: The Court and Constitutional Interpretation (see page 55 in the guidebook)