The Uniqueness of Foreign Affairs

69 Pages Posted: 18 May 2004

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This Article attempts to explain and justify the exceptional treatment that courts accord foreign affairs issues under the political question doctrine. For the most part, academic commentators have attacked the political question doctrine, arguing that the doctrine is both incoherent and inconsistent with the Marbury tradition of judicial review. Challenging the conventional academic wisdom, this Article contends that institutional competence considerations continue to warrant broad application of the doctrine in the foreign affairs context. More specifically, this Article argues that the power-based nature of most international policy decisions continues to constrain the power of the courts to adjudicate on foreign affairs controversies. Nonetheless, the mere involvement of foreign affairs in a legal dispute should not automatically preclude judicial review. Rather, this Article suggests an alternative vision of the judicial function in foreign affairs, which I call the balance of institutional competencies approach. This approach envisions a spectrum of judicial authority in foreign affairs, which depends on whether the underlying foreign affairs controversy implicates individual rights or domestic property interests, or whether Congress has legislated on the particular foreign affairs issue in question. When viewed as a device for the proper allocation of institutional competencies in foreign affairs disputes, this Article contends that the political question doctrine is both doctrinally coherent and, in the proper circumstances, normatively attractive.

Keywords: foreign affairs, political question, institutional competency

Suggested Citation

Nzelibe, Jide, The Uniqueness of Foreign Affairs. Iowa Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 942, March 2004. Available at SSRN:

Jide Nzelibe (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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