The Costs of “Discernible and Manageable Standards” in Vieth and Beyond
Joshua S. Stillman
This Note argues against the use of the prudential political question doctrine (PPQD), as exemplified by the Vieth v. Jubelirer plurality opinion. In Vieth, the Supreme Court avoided formulating a standard for adjudicating the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering due to a claimed lack of a “discernible and manageable standard.” This meant, according to the plurality, that no proposed doctrinal test was both concrete enough to be workably deployed by lower courts and discernible enough in the constitutional text, history, and structure, inter alia. Although the Vieth plurality opinion presents itself as based on universally applicable metadoctrine determining what is and is not a discernible and manageable doctrinal test, this Note argues the Court’s use of the PPQD is ultimately based on a gestalt prudential judgment about the wisdom of intervention in the particular area of partisan gerrymandering.
This Note then argues that the PPQD leads to negative consequences for future litigants and judicial legitimacy. The PPQD sends litigants on a wild goose chase for a perfect doctrinal standard, when it seems clear that no standard will satisfy the Vieth plurality. It also invites litigants to argue about what a discernible and manageable doctrinal test is in the abstract, rather than to address the particular legal issue at hand. These diversions insulate the judiciary from legitimate criticism of the grounds of its decisions. This Note then compares the PPQD to another option for judicial avoidance: a merits standard that is almost impossible for plaintiffs to meet in practice, such as rational basis review. This Note concludes that a stringent merits standard is a superior mechanism for judicial avoidance because it does not carry the same high costs for litigants and judicial legitimacy as the PPQD. Additionally, it allows the Court to exit from active adjudication of an issue while still preserving its ability to intervene in egregious cases.