Following on my last post, our analysis of the justiciability of claims related to the Article V convention will begin with Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433 (1939) and the political question doctrine. Coleman involved the purported ratification by the Kansas legislature of a child labor constitutional amendment proposed by Congress in 1924. After both houses of the Kansas legislature had rejected the proposed amendment in 1925, the Kansas house passed a resolution of ratification in 1937. The Kansas senate then equally divided (20-20) on the resolution, and the Lieutenant Governor, over the objections of those who opposed the amendment, broke the tie in favor of ratification.
Kansas legislators, including the 20 senators who voted against ratification, challenged this action in state court, and the case was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs advanced three grounds for invalidating the purported ratification: (1) that the 13 years between proposal and ratification was too long; (2) that the prior rejection of the amendment by the Kansas legislature precluded subsequent ratification and (3) that the Lieutenant Governor was not part of the “legislature” under Article V and therefore could not vote on ratification.
In a famously splintered opinion, the Coleman Court declined to reach the merits of any of these issues. In an opinion by Chief Justice Hughes designated as the “Opinion of the Court” (but joined by only two other justices), the Court held the Kansas legislators had standing to bring the suit, but found that two of the plaintiffs’ claims raised political questions that could only be resolved by Congress.
With respect to the whether the Kansas legislature’s previous rejection of the child labor amendment precluded its subsequent ratification, the Court stated that this “should be regarded as a political question pertaining to the political departments, with the ultimate authority in the Congress in the exercise of its control over the promulgation of the amendment.” 307 U.S. at 450. The Court found no basis for the proposition that it “should restrain the state officers from certifying the ratification to the Secretary of State because of an earlier rejection, and thus prevent the question from coming before the political departments.” Id.
Although the Supreme Court had previously held that ratification of amendments must take place within a reasonable time, the Coleman Court rejected the notion that “in the absence of a limitation by the Congress, the Court can and should decide what is a reasonable period within which ratification may be had.” 307 U.S. at 452. Determining what constitutes a reasonable time for ratification in any particular case would require “an appraisal of a great variety of relevant conditions, political, social, and economic,” which according to Chief Justice Hughes would involve questions that are “essentially political, and not justiciable.” Id. at 453-54.
With regard to the issue of the Lieutenant Governor’s participation in the ratification process, the Coleman Court declared: “Whether this contention presents a justiciable controversy, or a question which is political in its nature and hence not justiciable, is a question upon which the Court is equally divided, and therefore the Court expresses no opinion upon that point.” Id. at 447. (If you wonder how a 9-member Court came to be “equally divided,” the answer, though not relevant to our analysis, may be found here)
In his concurrence (joined by Justices Frankfurter, Roberts and Douglas), Justice Black suggested that the Court had not gone far enough in denying judicial power to resolve Article V controversies. While agreeing with the Court that Congress has the “exclusive power” to resolve “political questions” such the validity of ratification after prior rejection and the length of time within which an amendment could be ratified, Black criticized the Court for leaving an opening for any judicial resolution of Article V questions. See Coleman, 307 U.S. at 458 (“To the extent that the Court’s opinion in the present case even impliedly assumes a power to make judicial determination of the exclusive constitutional authority of Congress over submission and ratification of amendments, we are unable to agree.”). Instead, Black stressed that all Article V questions should be considered political and not justiciable:
Such a division between the political and judicial branches of the government is made by Article V, which grants power over the amending of the Constitution to Congress alone. Undivided control of that process has been given by the Article exclusively and completely to Congress. The process itself is “political” in its entirety, from submission until an amendment becomes part of the Constitution, and is not subject to judicial guidance, control, or interference at any point.
Coleman, 307 U.S. at 458-59 (Black, J., concurring).
Two additional opinions were written in Coleman. Justice Frankfurter wrote for himself and Justices Black, Roberts and Douglas in a separate opinion rejecting the Court’s conclusion that the Kansas legislators had standing to sue. See Coleman, 307 U.S. at 460 (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Frankfurter argued that the injury asserted by the plaintiffs, namely that the Kansas legislature had followed unconstitutional procedures in ratifying the child labor amendment, was not the type traditionally redressed by the judiciary and would open the federal courts to “sit[ting] in judgment on the manifold disputes engendered by procedures for voting in legislative assemblies.” Id. at 469-70.
Finally, Justice Butler authored a dissent, for himself and Justice McReynolds, arguing that the Court should have reached the merits and struck down Kansas’s ratification as untimely. Coleman, 307 U.S. at 470 (Butler, J., dissenting). It should be noted, however, that Butler did not actually express an opinion on whether the timeliness of ratification was a political question. Instead, he pointed to the fact that the Court had previously treated it as a justiciable question, and he argued that the Court should not have reversed itself on this point without argument or briefing.
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