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Powell v. McCormack

    Citation. 395 U.S. 486, 89 S. Ct. 1944, 23 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1969)

    Brief Fact Summary. After being elected to the House of Representatives (the House), the House denied membership to the Plaintiff-Petitioner, Powell (Plaintiff). Plaintiff now sues for installment as a representative.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The “textual commitment” to a constitutional provision by a political branch is justiciable.


    Facts. During the 89th Congress, it was found that Plaintiff had engaged in deceptive and possibly illegal actions surrounding his service as chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. After his reelection to the 90th Congress, he was asked to step aside while the other representatives were sworn in. Also, he was later asked to inform the Governor of New York that his seat was vacant. Plaintiff sued, alleging the House did not have the constitutional authority to deny his seat when he met the qualifications expressly set forth for Representatives in Article I of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Issue. Does the House have a textual commitment in the constitution to determine the qualifications of its members?

    Held. Yes. Case reversed and remanded.
    The Defendants-Respondents, members of Congress including the Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (Defendants), argued that the House has broad powers under Article I, Section: 5 of the Constitution to determine the qualifications of its membership. Plaintiff argued and the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) agreed, the ratification debates and historical context of the framers limit the qualifications to those set forth in the Constitution.
    The Supreme Court also notes that to hold otherwise would nullify the framers’ decision to require two-thirds vote for expulsion.

    Discussion. There is actually one independent and one dependent issue in Powell. First, what power the Constitution confers on the House. In other words, is there a textually dependent commitment? Second, how to interpret the text on which such commitment depends. A textually dependent commitment is necessary for judicial review (i.e., the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the constitution). Once this is established, the Supreme Court must interpret the textual meaning. In Powell, it is clear and conceded that Powell met the requirements specifically mentioned in Article I regarding qualifications of representatives.

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