Ninth Circuit Holds that the Political Question Doctrine is a Jurisdictional Limitation

The Ninth Circuit holds that the political question inherent in Corrie v. Caterpillar, Inc., case no 05-36210 (9th Cir. Sept. 17, 2007) precludes the exercise of Article III jurisdiction.  Until Corrie, the Ninth Circuit has not clearly decided whether the political question doctrine is a jurisdictional limitation or merely a self-imposed prudential restraint.

The court evaluates competing cases on the issue, and even finds that the six factors used in evaluating whether the case concerns a political question, enumerated in  Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), are themselves divided into jurisdictional and prudential considerations.  It reconciles this dichotomy by deciding that the doctrine’s prudential concerns can help define the scope of subject matter jurisdiction under Article III of the Constitution:

Prudential considerations look to the consequences of a court asserting its jurisdiction, while purely constitutional ones look to the text and structure of the Constitution itself for clues about the limitations on a court’s Article III powers. Because the Constitution’s grants of authority are often set forth in broad strokes, courts often take prudential concerns into account to assist them in the difficult task of discerning which cases the Constitution forbids them from hearing.  [Citation.]  We have accordingly pointed to Justice Powell’s view that the first three Baker factors focus on the constitutional limitations of a court’s jurisdiction, while the final three are “prudential considerations [that] counsel against judicial intervention.” [Citations.]

In this sense, the political question doctrine may have a prudential element to its application, and it is not a contradiction to speak of the political question doctrine as both prudential and jurisdictional.  But it is at bottom a jurisdictional limitation imposed on the courts by the Constitution, and not by the judiciary itself. [Citation.]

We hold that if a case presents a political question, we lack subject matter jurisdiction to decide that question.

By now, you’re probably wondering just what political question was presented.  Plaintiffs were family members of persons killed by Israeli Defense Forces bulldozers supplied by Caterpillar and paid for by the U.S. Government.  For analysis of how the court decided the existence of a political question, see Decision of the Day.