In Re: In the Matter of Pamela Smart
If you have been following the case of Pamela Smart, the former school employee convicted of conspiring with her teenage lover to murder her husband in 1990, you may have heard that her latest petition was denied by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. But what you may not know is that the reason for the denial was not based on the underlying merits of Smart’s case, but, rather, on the legal principle that courts should not answer political questions.
Smart’s petition was essentially a plea for clemency, asking the Court to force New Hampshire’s Governor and Executive Council to reconsider whether to grant a hearing on the merits of her Petition for Commutation. However, the Court ruled that making such a decision would require the Court to answer a political question, which is not the sort of question the judicial branch typically decides.
So, what is a political question and why cannot courts answer them? A political question is a matter that is traditionally left to the political branches of government, such as the executive or legislative branches. Political questions often include issues related to foreign policy, national security, and even disputes between the States. The rationale behind the political question doctrine is that courts are not equipped to handle these types of issues, as they lack the expertise, resources, and democratic legitimacy necessary to make decisions on behalf of the people.
In the case of Pamela Smart, the Court held that her petition presented a political question because it involved issues of criminal justice policy, such as the appropriate use of clemency and “‘pardon and commutation decisions have not traditionally been the business of courts’ and ‘they are rarely, if ever, appropriate subjects for judicial review.’” Conn. Board of Pardons v. Dumschat, 452 U.S. 458, 464 (1981). Commutation decisions are matters that are best left to the executive branch of government since it has the authority, and political accountability, to make policy decisions that reflect the will of the people.
While some critics may argue that the political question doctrine allows government officials to avoid immediate accountability for controversial decisions, it is an important principle that works to maintain the separation of powers and protect the integrity of the judicial system. And, as Chief Justice John Marshall famously declared, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803). Conversely, the executive and legislative branches decide what the law should be.
As it turned away Pamela Smart’s latest petition, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reaffirmed Marbury’s principles by declining to answer a political question, leaving the decision to the executive branch of New Hampshire’s government. While this might be a disappointing result for Smart and her many supporters, it is a victory for the rule of law and the principles of democratic governance.
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