The Constitution of the United States separates power equally, among three distant branches. The Executive enforces the law, the Legislative makes the laws, and the Judicial interprets the law. What does interpreting the law entail? According to the constitution's strict wording, “The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority;--to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls;--to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction;--to controversies to which the United States shall be a party;--to controversies between two or more states;--between a state and citizens of another state;--between citizens of different states;--between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens or subjects” (Article III, Section 2, Clause i). This vague paragraph does not truly define the leading principles or outline of the Supreme Court's role in an equal government, except to try cases.
Prior to 1801, the Court was headed by three men who all made short service. John Jay- first Chief Justice- resigned the Court; John Rutledge- the Second- was appointed during a recess and formally rejected by the Senate; and Oliver Ellsworth- Third- who was in poor health most of his tenure. The most important case tried at this time, arguably, was New York v. Connecticut. Historians today do not even rank cases prior to 1803 on importance. In 1801 John Marshall, a former Congressman and Secretary of State, was nominated by President John Adams to fill the office of Chief Justice. Marshall was accepted and fully confirmed by the Senate. When coming to the Court, Marshall presided over several cases before an important case would come before the floor.
Before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States in 1801, the current President John Adams appointed many Federalist politicians to the newly created high level positions of Circuit Court Justices. When Jefferson took office however, Secretary of State James Madison refused to confirm many of the appointments. One appointee, William Marbury sued Madison for refusing to deliver his commission. Marbury and several others requested that the Court issue a Writ of Mandamus- a Court order to fulfill a particular action- requiring that Madison honor the appointments as stated in the Judiciary act of 1801.
In the new case of Marbury v. Madison, a new sense of court power was being seen. Several questions needed to be answered before giving any ruling in favor of either side. Did Marbury have a right to the commission? Do the laws of the country give Marbury a legal remedy? Is asking the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus the correct legal remedy? The decision made was controversial yet set a precedent that has yet to be challenged. The Court unanimously ruled Marbury had the legal right to his appointment, however the Court did not have the power to issue a writ. The decision stated of the Judiciary act of 1789- prerequisite to the Judiciary Act of 1801, which gave Congress the power to pass the latter- “Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 is unconstitutional to the extent it purports to enlarge the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court beyond that permitted by the Constitution. Congress cannot pass laws that are contrary to the Constitution, and it is the role of the Judicial system to interpret what the Constitution permits” (Marshall, Dk.102).
In doing so the Court fully established its right and power of Judicial Review. Judicial Review is the right of Supreme Court to rule acts of Congress or any Law in contest with the Constitution, null and void as the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the land. The opinion argued Congressional Acts that conflict with the Constitution, the Court has an obligation to uphold the Constitution. This methodology of thinking and determining constitutionality is known as loose constructionism. The ruling stretches the meaning of the Article III as it is not specifically stated. The view of loose constructionism was primarily used during the Adams Administration, however Jefferson was a strict Constructionist and criticized the Court’s ruling. “You seem to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions; a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps.... Their power [is] the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves” (Jefferson).
To this day, Judicial Review has not been challenged. The basis of the major Supreme Court cases has been Judicial Review, rather than original jurisdiction. The rise of a precedent so strong that has not ever been overturned is one that can become a great protector of freedoms or a great threat.
- Spencer M. Dayton is an RCHA Curator and adjunct contributor specializing in pre-Revolution to Constitutional Era American history.
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Spencer M. Dayton