Questioning the Political Question
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the marriage of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur in Obergefell v. Hodges. While the name and date do not particularity stand out as memorable or controversial, its effects are both—it was this case that officially legalized gay marriage in the United States. Facebook profiles changed, digital and physical ink spilled in abundance, and while plenty were pleased with the court's decision, some doubtlessly felt that rights had been trodden upon. Previously, individual states could determine democratically if they wanted to recognize gay marriage as legal, and now the Supreme Court was usurping that right. These questions on whether the decisions made on June 26, 2015 were legally determined largely on the interpretation of the Political Question Doctrine.
The Political Question Doctrine is the legal philosophy that courts should only judge and decide cases whose parameters strictly involve violations of set laws. If a case comes forth wherein any verdict would have political ramifications, the court should refuse to hear it. The difference between the two is that legal issues can be settled by using or clarifying existing laws—whether those legislated by Congress or through interpretation of the Constitution—while disputes of a political nature essentially set legal precedents as strong as law. The political question doctrine reaffirms that though the Supreme Court can help define the law when it is being contested, the right to make new laws should remain in the hands of the people and the democratic process. Thus, the American legal system can remain objective and Congress can decide the messy business of politics.
The advantages to adhering to the Political Question Doctrine are obvious. It assures the law is, as Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people.” It also allows for laws to be catered to individual states, deciding on what is important for each locale. California's carpool and green vehicle legislation may be appropriate on the West Coast, but less so in Alaska. Adherence to the doctrine would avoid government overreach, such as when the Supreme Court, in deciding Bush v. Gore, essentially chose George W. Bush over Al Gore for the presidency despite Al Gore’s majority in Florida and nationwide.
However, positive cases have arisen by the Supreme Court taking some liberties, such as Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court decided that school segregation was unconstitutional, regardless of local state Jim Crow laws. Additionally, many blue laws such as McGowan v. Maryland were upheld because local laws were not contested by the Supreme Court, even though their origin violated separation of church and state.
Putting a hard and fast rule on when the Political Question Doctrine should be followed and when it should be ignored is difficult because most of the cases it involves tend to be morally controversial. It does feel like a violation of democracy when the nine men and women in robes supersede laws made by its citizens, but if those laws are immoral or unfair to a specific people group, it makes it justified for a government to step in and change things for the good of its citizens.