Powell v. McCormack.

Because Baker had apparently restricted the political question doctrine to intrafederal issues, there was no discussion of the doctrine when the Court held that it had power to review and overturn a state legislature’s refusal to seat a member-elect because of his expressed views.704 But in Powell v. McCormack,705 the Court was confronted with a challenge to the exclusion of a member-elect by the United States House of Representatives. Its determination that the political question doctrine did not bar its review of the challenge indicates the narrowness of application of the doctrine in its present state. Taking Justice Brennan’s formulation in Baker of the factors that go to make up a political question,706 Chief Justice Warren determined that the only critical one in this case was whether there was a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment” to the House to determine in its sole discretion the qualifications of members.707

In order to determine whether there was a textual commitment, the Court reviewed the Constitution, the Convention proceedings, and English and United States legislative practice to ascertain what power had been conferred on the House to judge the qualifications of its members; finding that the Constitution vested the House with power only to look at the qualifications of age, residency, and citizenship, the Court thus decided that in passing on Powell’s conduct and character the House had exceeded the powers committed to it and thus judicial review was not barred by this factor of the political question doctrine.708 Although this approach accords with the “classicist” theory of judicial review,709 it circumscribes the political question doctrine severely, inasmuch as all constitutional questions turn on whether a governmental body has exceeded its specified powers, a determination the Court traditionally makes, whereas traditionally the doctrine precluded the Court from inquiring whether the governmental body had exceeded its powers. In short, the political question consideration may now be one on the merits rather than a decision not to decide.

Chief Justice Warren disposed of the other factors present in political question cases in slightly more than a page. Because resolution of the question turned on an interpretation of the Constitution, a judicial function which must sometimes be exercised “at variance with the construction given the document by another branch,” there was no lack of respect shown another branch. Nor, because the Court is the “ultimate interpreter of the Constitution,” will there be “multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question,” nor, since the Court is merely interpreting the Constitution, is there an “initial policy determination” not suitable for courts. Finally, “judicially . . . manageable standards” are present in the text of the Constitution.710 The effect of Powell was to discard all the Baker factors inhering in a political question, with the exception of the textual commitment factor, and that was interpreted in such a manner as seldom if ever to preclude a judicial decision on the merits.


Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116 (1966). back
395 U.S. 486 (1969). back
Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962). back
395 U.S. at 319. back
395 U.S. at 519–47. The Court noted, however, that even if this conclusion had not been reached from unambiguous evidence, the result would have followed from other considerations. Id. at 547–48. back
See H. Wechsler, supra at 11–12. Professor Wechsler believed that congressional decisions about seating members were immune to review. Id. Chief Justice Warren noted that “federal courts might still be barred by the political question doctrine from reviewing the House’s factual determination that a member did not meet one of the standing qualifications. This is an issue not presented in this case and we express no view as to its resolution.” Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 521 n.42 (1969). See also id. at 507 n.27 (reservation on limitations that might exist on Congress’s power to expel or otherwise punish a sitting member). back
395 U.S. at 548–549. With the formulation of Chief Justice Warren, compare that of then-Judge Burger in the lower court. 395 F.2d 577, 591–96 (D.C. Cir. 1968). back