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In the United States federal system, power is divided between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as a means of creating a balanced government through checks and balances. The executive branch, for instance, can veto the legislative branch, but the legislative branch can also serve as a check on executive power by overturning a veto. One of the checks on the power of the judicial branch is a doctrine of non-interference in what is known as a political question. Naming a case a political question means that the court will not rule on the dispute, as it is meant to be worked out through political, rather than judicial, means.
The concept of the political question dates back to the early 19th century, when the Supreme Court of the United States was just beginning to define its position in the newly-created federal government. The term was first used by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, when he suggested that the role of the court was to make decisions on individual rights and constitutionality, and not on actions of the government that are subject to another form of review. This doctrine was expanded in 1849 by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who stated more clearly that questions with a political remedy are to be subject to that form of remedy, rather than a Supreme Court decision.
The political question doctrine is a self-imposed rule on the Supreme Court, rather than most of the law-stipulated checks and balances that govern actions between the other branches of the federal government. Generally, it is seen as a means of limiting the power of the judicial branch of the government by giving it jurisdiction over non-political issues only. Confusion often arises, however, when it comes down to exactly what qualifies as a political question, and what does not.
In most cases, the Supreme Court has declined to rule on issues of foreign policy and military matters by rule of the political question doctrine. Beyond this, however, the use of the political question doctrine has become quite murky. In the Watergate affair that brought about the resignation of President Nixon, the Court abandoned its previous doctrine in ruling that the President could not defy Congressional subpoenas to turn over evidence. According to the previous interpretation of a political question, the Supreme Court would have had no jurisdiction over the actions of the President, as the executive branch of government is subject to its own rules.
Legal scholars often despair that the only means of defining a political question is through endless itemization: only on a case-by-case basis is the term specifically enumerated. Since the character of the court changes with member turnover, the court may also choose to ignore precedent, leading to a tug-of-war through time as the Court chooses to set precedent, create exceptions, and reverse previous positions. At its heart, a political question ruling is meant to create a check on the power of the judiciary branch, but many question whether this self-imposed rule is too subject to the changing whims of the court.
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