• Last updated on November 11, 2022

By refusing to take sides in a dispute between two rival governments in Rhode Island, the Supreme Court held that the meaning of “a Republican form of government” is a political question and thus a responsibility of Congress rather than the courts.

Following the Dorr Rebellion of 1842, two competing groups claimed to be the lawful government of Rhode Island. One claim was based on a democratic referendum; the other was based on a colonial charter of 1663. The charter government, supported by President John Tyler, declared martial law and reestablished its authority. A Dorrite reformer, Luther Borden, argued in federal district court that the charter government’s nondemocratic arrangements and procedures violated the “republican form” guarantee in the U.S. Constitution. The court dismissed Borden’s claims and upheld the government in power.Political questions;Luther v. Borden[Luther v. Borden]Guarantee clause;Luther v. Borden[Luther v. Borden]

Speaking for an 8-1 majority on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke TaneyTaney, Roger Brooke;Luther v. Borden[Luther v. Borden] affirmed the decision of the lower court. Taney announced the political question doctrine, which gives the legislative and executive branches responsibility to decide on political controversies absent a clear legal issue. The determination of the legitimacy of a state government did not fall within judicial competence. Taney did recognize that a federal court could inquire whether the use of martial law was consistent with the guarantee clause, but held that in this case, because martial law was temporary, Rhode Island had not violated the Constitution.

Democracy

Judicial powers

Political questions

Separation of powers

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