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Powell v. McCormack

Published on 23rd March 2017

Powell v. McCormack 395 US 486 (1969)

Facts: Adam Clayton Powell was a United States Representative for Harlem, New York. By the mid 1960’s, he had held his seat for twenty years and was a senior member of the House and chair of the Education and Labor Committee. He also, it turned out, had a certain amount of baggage in tow. While wildly popular among his constituents, Powell was not well liked by his peers on Capitol Hill. To add to that situation, he was found by a Congressional inquiry to have inappropriately spent public funds for various personal uses. Because of this and various other questionable acts on his part, the House voted to bar Powell from sitting in the Ninetieth Congress in 1968. Powell immediately sued the House Speaker, John McCormack, among others, for violating the Constitution’s Qualifications Clause, found in Article I, section 2. He argued that the barring of a member from sitting for any other reason than those listed in the Constitution could not be permissible. The Court ruled 7-1 in Powell’s favor.

Question: Is the controversy of whether the House can exclude a member a nonjusticiable political question? Does Congress have the right to exclude a member who has been legitimately elected for reasons other than those listed in the Qualifications Clause?

Holding: No and no. In a verdict of 7-1, the Supreme Court found that the Qualifications Clause represents an exhaustive list of requirements to be seated in Congress and, as such, any alteration to that list is in violation of it.

Rationale: Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice Warren first addresses the question of justiciability, as one of the respondents’ primary claims was that the case dealt with a political question. Warren refers back to James Madison in arguing that, for the House to regulate the qualifications of its members at will would be analogous to a usurpation of “the indisputable right [of the people] to return whom they thought proper.” He finds that the respondents’ claim that Article I section 5 provides a textually demonstrable commitment to judge qualifications only extends to the ability to adjudicate the qualifications already laid out in the Constitution. Warren leans heavily on the intent of the Framers in this decision. He especially points out Alexander Hamilton’s remark that “the people should choose whom they please to govern them,” and that this insinuates the exhaustive nature of the Qualifications Clause. Thus, Warren argues, to bar any fairly elected member of the House from being seated would be to deny the people of that fundamental right. While the House has the right to expel members for certain criminal offenses, it cannot manipulate in any way the eligibility requirements to be a member. It can expel but not exclude. Powell had a right to be seated at the Ninetieth Congress.

Justice Stewart dissents, arguing that the case is moot because the Ninetieth Congress was firmly over at that point and Powell had been admitted for the Ninety-First.  

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