Citation. 395 U.S. 486, 89 S.Ct. 1944, 23 L.Ed.2d 491 (1969).
Brief Fact Summary.
Powell was elected in New York to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was alleged that he had stolen House money, so the House excluded him from taking his seat, leaving it vacant.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Congress may only determine whether elected members meet the minimum qualifications set forth in Article I, Section 2, but Congress may not block elected members from taking their seat based on their discretion. Moreover, interpreting the Constitution, even if the interpretation goes against what another branch has decided, falls within the Court’s duties and is therefore justiciable.
Powell was elected in New York to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was alleged that he had stolen House money, so the Speaker of the House ruled that the House of Representatives could prevent him from taking his seat by a majority vote. The House voted to exclude him, and his seat remained vacant.
In answering whether the case presented a nonjusticiable political question, the Court addressed two factors from Baker v. Carr:
(1) Whether there was a “textually demonstrable constitutional commitment” to the House to determine elected members’ qualifications; and
(2) Whether the Court should avoid the case because of the potential for an “embarrassing confrontation between coordinate branches.”
CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN holding: No, the claim was justiciable. First, the Constitution entitled Congress to evaluate its members minimum qualifications set forth in Article I, Section 2 (age, citizenship, and residence). Beyond that, however, Congress may not exclude members based on its discretion.
Second, determining whether Powell could serve in the House of Representatives merely required courts to interpret the Constitution. Interpreting the Constitution falls under the judiciary’s constitutional duty, and just because the Court’s interpretation conflicted with Congress’ does not enable courts to avoid their duty.
Regarding the Court’s holding that Congress could not block elected members from taking their seat by majority vote, the Court reasoned that allowing Congress to do this would be to go against principles of representative democracy, thereby robbing the people of their right to choose their representatives. Further, it would nullify the Framers’ decision to require a two-thirds vote to expel a current member of the House. Congress could protect its integrity by punishing members for bad behavior, and, in rare cases, expel members with a two-thirds vote. Thus, the Framers’ intent and principles of democracy demanded that Congress could not prevent members from taking their seat by majority vote.
Second, the Court’s pronouncement did not involve “lack of respect” due to Congress because the Constitution requires the Court to interpret the law and the Constitution. Sometimes, this means that the Court and Congress will disagree, but that does not mean that courts must avoid their duty to interpret the Constitution.