An issue that the federal courts refuse to decide because it properly belongs to the decision-making authority of elected officials.
Political questions include such areas as the conduct of foreign policy, the ratification of constitutional amendments, and the organization of each state's government as defined in its own constitution. The rule preventing federal courts from deciding such cases is called the political question doctrine. Its purpose is to distinguish the role of the federal judiciary from those of the legislature and the executive, preventing the former from encroaching on either of the latter. Under the rule, courts may choose to dismiss cases even if they have jurisdiction over them. However, the rule has no precise formulation, and its development since the 1960s has sometimes been unpredictable.
The Supreme Court originated the idea of political questions in the early 1800s during its formative era. As with other judicial doctrines created by the Court, the rule is interpretive and self-imposed. It is neither a result of legislation nor a part of the U.S. Constitution, although it appears to emanate from the Constitution's SEPARATION OF POWERS. The Court created the political question doctrine as part of the broader concept of justiciability?the issue of whether a matter is appropriate for court review. Appropriate matters are called JUSTICIABLE controversies and may proceed to court. Political questions are not regarded as appropriate matters; they are not justiciable and, generally, will be dismissed. The political question doctrine will not be applied to every matter that arouses fierce public debate, as seen in the Court's rulings on ABORTION and AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. As the history of the Supreme Court shows, the determination of whether an issue is justiciable is at its own discretion.
Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL first used the term political question in 1803 at a time when the Court sought to tread delicately between warring factions of politicians in Washington. Not until 1849 was the idea elaborated, in response to a crisis in the state of Rhode Island known as the Dorr Rebellion: a political uprising had resulted in the passage of two separate state constitutions, the declaration of MARTIAL LAW, and the promise of military intervention by President JOHN TYLER. The Supreme Court was asked to settle critical constitutional questions about the nature of...