The federal judiciary is, by design, intended to be the least political branch of the U.S. government. While federal courts cannot help but wade into political matters with regularity, if courts consider a case to be centered on a "political question," it will not take up the case. This is known as the political question or justiciability doctrine.
One of the most notable cases involving the political question doctrine is Baker v. Carr, a 1962 opinion in which the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard courts use to weigh justiciability. It involved the issue of legislative apportionment and to what extent federal courts can hear cases over the way states elect lawmakers.
The Political Question Doctrine
How best to resolve disputes over legislative apportionment is not a new question. Even at the time of the nation's founding, questions over how to best represent the will of the people in state legislatures and Congress was a pressing question. That is why Article I, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to pass laws and set conditions on state apportionment plans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an example of Congress using its authority under the Constitution to set conditions on state apportionment plans.
Courts have been debating the meaning of the political question doctrine for just as long. In Marbury v. Madison, the founding-era opinion that set up judicial review, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that "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 other words, if the Constitution reserves the question at issue to the Executive or Legislative branches of government, then it is not something that courts have jurisdiction over. It was the beginning of the political question doctrine.
The court would continue to weigh in on the political question doctrine over the years, particularly cases involving redistricting issues. In 1932, for example, the Supreme Court held redistricting plans for three states were unconstitutional because the governors of those states had not signed off on the plans. Those cases are Smiley v. Holm, Koenig v. Flynn, and Carroll v. Becker. However, they did not explicitly say that apportionment was (or was not) a non-justiciable political question.
The most important decision on this issue before Baker was Colegrove v. Green. In Colegrove, a plurality of justices held that a challenge to Illinois' Congressional reapportionment plan was a non-justiciable issue. Justice Frankfurter wrote the opinion for the plurality. He would go on to write a dissent in Baker.
Factual Background to Baker v. Carr
Tennessee passed a law in 1901 to apportion seats for its general assembly, the state's legislative branch. In the following decades, Tennessee's population soared, particularly in urban areas such as Memphis. Yet Tennessee's districts remained unchanged, leading to a situation where one-third of Tennessee residents in rural areas were electing two-thirds of the state's lawmakers.
Charles Baker, a Tennessee resident, sued the Tennessee Secretary of State in federal court to reapportion the state so that it was more representative of Tennessee's population, alleging that the law as it stood violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the district court dismissed the case, finding that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and the litigation involved a nonjusticiable issue. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then had to resolve the question: Does the federal judiciary have jurisdiction over questions of state legislative appointments?
The Holding in Baker v. Carr
The question before the court was whether a state's apportionment plan was purely a question for the state's lawmakers to tackle. The Warren Court, in a 6-2 decision, held that federal courts do have jurisdiction over reapportionment issues. The U.S. Constitution gives courts authority over ". . . all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution . . ." Since the complaint alleged that Tennessee's apportionment law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Justice Brennan, writing for the majority, wrote that "it is clear that the cause of action is one which arises under the Federal Constitution."
Justice Brennan then wrote extensively on precedents that attempted to establish just what the political question doctrine entailed. Broadly, Justice Brennan said political questions are non-justiciable if they involve at least one of the following circumstances:
- The Constitution explicitly gives the responsibility to another branch of government
- It lacks "judicially discoverable and manageable standards"
- Answering the question requires, at the outset, to make a political or policy determination beyond what judges have discretion to do.
- Deciding the issue would show "a lack of respect for coordinate branches"
- It requires "an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made"
- It offers "the potentiality of embarrassment" if multiple branches or departments of government answer the question in different ways
Using these standards, the majority held that Tennessee's apportionment plan was a justiciable issue that the Supreme Court could resolve. The majority did not offer a resolution, however, and instead sent the case back down to the district court to decide the case on its merits.
Tennessee ended up revising its apportionment plan, which the district court allowed, and the case was ultimately resolved through a 1963 Tennessee law that gave more equal weight to each vote.
Justices Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan each dissented, writing that legislators, and not judges, are given the responsibility for legislative apportionment. Instead of the Judicial branch, Justice Frankfurter believed that the remedy for unequal districting lay with state legislators and, if necessary, Congress. Justice Harlan, meanwhile, wrote that the plaintiffs in the case did not present a valid constitutional claim. In Justice Harlan's view, the equal protection clause does not require that all votes for a state legislature be given equal weight.
Lasting Impact of Baker v. Carr
Justice Brennan's opinion in Baker led courts to hear several challenges to legislative apportionment plans, which continue to be frequent targets of challenges on constitutional grounds.
In recent years the focus of litigation has shifted to “gerrymandering"—the name given to unusually drawn redistricting plans that benefit a certain political party. In part because of the longstanding precedent in Baker, the Supreme Court has held that it can hear challenges to gerrymandering under the equal protection clause if the challenge alleges the gerrymandering is based on race.
However, the Supreme Court has still found some redistricting plans to be non-justiciable. In 2019, for example, the Supreme Court held that gerrymandering purely for partisan advantage is a non-justiciable political question and, therefore, one that cannot be resolved by federal courts.
While questions over the political doctrine remain, Baker v. Carr set a precedent that has led to frequent challenges regarding how we elect state and federal lawmakers. It remains an influential and important decision that paved the way for modern court cases over apportionment and election laws.
You can read the full opinion in Baker v. Carr on FindLaw.