Political Question Doctrine

Overview

Federal courts will refuse to hear a case if they find that it presents a political question. This doctrine refers to the idea that an issue is so politically charged that federal courts, which are typically viewed as the apolitical branch of government, should not hear the issue. The doctrine is also referred to as the justiciability doctrine or the nonjusticiability doctrine. 

Applying the Doctrine

In Oetjen v. Central Leather Co. (1918), which is one of the earliest examples of the Supreme Court applying the political question doctrine, the Court found that the conduct of foreign relations is the sole responsibility of the Executive Branch. As such, the Court found that cases which challenge the way in which the Executive uses that power present political questions. Thus, the Court held that it cannot preside over these issues. 

The Court broadened this ruling in Baker v Carr (1962), when it held that federal courts should not hear cases which deal directly with issues that the Constitution makes the sole responsibility of the Executive Branch and/or the Legislative Branch.

The Court in Nixon v. United States (1993) also extended this doctrine to which lawsuits which challenge the Legislative Branch's procedure for impeachment proceedings.

Further, the Supreme Court has chosen to apply the doctrine in more cases related to the Executive Branch than in cases related to the Legislative Branch.

Further Reading 

For more on the topic, see this Harvard Law Review Note and this Georgetown University Law Center article