Sign-up to receive our free newsletter.
In the most important judicial decision in U.S. history, the Supreme Court empowered itself to be the final authority on the legality of government activity. This shifted the balance of government power to the judiciary, upset the federalist system envisioned by the founders, and enabled federal courts–consisting of unelected officials–to dominate public policy through their rulings.
Just before leaving office, President John Adams made several last-minute appointments. When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams, he canceled many of these appointments. Among them was William Marbury, who sued Secretary of State James Madison for his commission. The case was referred to the Supreme Court, where a monumental ruling was delivered.
The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist who supported a strong federal government. Marshall ruled that Marbury had no right to sue Madison because the law that Marbury invoked was unconstitutional. This marked the first time that the Supreme Court declared that a law passed by Congress and signed by the president was illegal.
This case introduced the concept of “judicial review,” or the power of the Supreme Court to decide whether acts of the legislative or executive branches are unconstitutional. While this power was not granted to the Court in the Constitution, Marshall argued that it needed to be added so the Court could become an equal branch of government with the legislative and executive branches.
Based on this precedent, the Supreme Court has routinely invalidated state and federal laws that it deems unconstitutional. However, this upsets the constitutional intent by the founders because the Court was formed to merely interpret laws, not to overturn them. Overturning laws involves making laws, and only Congress was to have the power to legislate.
President Jefferson denounced Marbury v. Madison as a violation of the founders’ intent when they wrote the Constitution. However he did not have enough supporters in Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment to overturn it. Jefferson believed that federal judges should be technical specialists, not policy makers, considering they are not elected officials and they serve for life.
In declaring that the Supreme Court was the final authority on law in the U.S., John Marshall set the precedent for a judiciary that would become strong and centralized at the expense of the states and the people. “Judicial review” was a concept that was neither endorsed nor documented by the founders in the Constitution. This effectively gave unelected bureaucrats the power to strike down laws passed by representatives elected by the people. This empowers the Supreme Court to declare the will of the people null and void.
Today it is generally accepted that the Supreme Court has the right to strike down federal and state laws, as well as to set public policy (i.e., Roe v. Wade) and virtually create laws based on their constitutional interpretations. However the Court was merely intended to be an advisory body to Congress and the president. Marshall’s concept of judicial review dealt a significant blow to the federalist idea of government and upset the balance of power between the federal branches of government and between the federal and state governments.