Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Political Question Doctrine Definition:

A doctrine which prevents a court of law from determining issues which are essentially political; within the purview of the executive branch of government.

Related Terms: Executive Branch, Judicial Branch

In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall of the United States Supreme Court wrote, in Marbury v Madison:

"The province of the court is, solely, to decide on the rights of individuals, not to enquire how the executive, or executive officers, perform duties in which they have a discretion. Questions, in their nature political, or which are, by the constitution and laws, submitted to the executive, can never be made in this court."

In El-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries Co. v. US, Justice Thomas Griffiths of the United States Court of Appeals has before him this set of facts:

"In 1998, the President of the United States ordered a missile strike against a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that he believed was connected to the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden. The owners of the plant sued the United States, challenging several allegedly defamatory statements made by senior executive branch officials justifying the strike as well as the government's failure to compensate them for the destruction of the plant."

The Court confirmed the dismissal of the complaint on the ground that it presents a nonjusticiable political question:

"(The political question) doctrine prohibits the judiciary from reviewing policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed for resolution to the halls of Congress or the confines of the Executive Branch."

A further example of the doctrine was exhibited in Omar v Harvey. In that case, Justice Tatel of wrote:

"The political question doctrine puts beyond judicial cognizance political decisions that are by their nature committed to the political branches. For example ... the doctrine bars courts from considering claims whose adjudication would require judicial wading into foreign policy or military waters. Thus (in another case1), we invoked the political question doctrine to dismiss a claim that would have required us to second-guess U.S. policy towards Chile. Similarly, we dismissed a complaint that would have required us to review the manner in which the United States established a military base in the Indian Ocean.2"

In 2008, the opinion of Justice Pogue of the United States Court of International Trade in Totes-Isotoner Corp. v. US included this:

"The political question doctrine, recognizing our constitutional separation of powers principle, does exclude some disputes from judicial determination. Under this doctrine, a subject matter is not appropriate for judicial resolution where it is exclusively assigned to the political branches or where such branches are better-suited than the judicial branch to determine the matter. The political question doctrine excludes from judicial review those controversies which revolve around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed for resolution to the halls of Congress or the confines of the Executive Branch. The Judiciary is particularly ill suited to to make such decisions, as courts are fundamentally underequipped to formulate national policies or develop standards for matters not legal in nature."

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