February 24, 1803 (a Thursday)

The Constitution of the United States was not made to fit us like a strait jacket. In its elasticity lies its chief greatness.

— Woodrow Wilson

Zen stones

Scales of Justice

On this day in 1803, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, decided the landmark case of William Marbury v James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States and confirmed the legal principle of judicial review —the right of the courts to determine the constitutionality of the actions of the other two branches of government — in the new nation.  This principle was an important addition to the system of “checks and balances” created to prevent any one branch of the Federal Government from becoming too powerful.

Show-cause order served on James Madison, Secretary of State, 1802; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; Record Group 267; National Archives.

Nothing in the Constitution gave the Court this specific power. Chief Justice John Marshall, however, believed that the Supreme Court should have a role equal to those of the other two branches of government.

When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote a defense of the Constitution in The Federalist, they explained their judgment that a strong national government must have built-in restraints: “You must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The writers of the Constitution had given the executive and legislative branches powers that would limit each other as well as the judiciary branch. The Constitution gave Congress the power to impeach and remove officials, including judges or the President himself. The President was given the veto power to restrain Congress and the authority to appoint members of the Supreme Court with the advice and consent of the Senate. In this intricate system, the role of the Supreme Court had not been defined. It therefore fell to a strong Chief Justice like Marshall to complete the triangular structure of checks and balances by establishing the principle of judicial review. Although no other law was declared unconstitutional until the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the role of the Supreme Court to invalidate Federal and state laws that are contrary to the Constitution has never been seriously challenged.

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