political question doctrine

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Political Question doctrine is the rule that 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 non-justiciability doctrine, but the justiciability doctrine may involve other reasons for dismissing a claim such as for mootness

Applying the Doctrine

The political question doctrine is infamously controversial and difficult to apply. The doctrine involves balancing the separate powers of each branch of government with the judicial review authority of the Supreme Court. Courts only apply the doctrine in the most clear of cases.

The Supreme Court expounded on the political question doctrine 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 created six factors with differing levels of importance to consider in finding a political question: “a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; or the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; or an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question” (Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 686 (1962)). A court must find that at least one of these factors directly applies to a case before the court can dismiss a case as a political question. 

The doctrine also does not apply evenly, with the doctrine being more frequently applied in certain contexts. For example, 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, and lower courts have applied the political question doctrine to foreign policy numerous times. 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 information on the political question doctrine, see this Harvard Law Review Note, Georgetown University Law Center article, and this Stanford Law Review article.

[Last updated in October of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]