The United States of America has always viewed its system of checks and balances as a foundational key to establishing and maintaining our democracy. This may feel like a repeat of high school civics classes, but there are three branches of government, each with its own constitutional authority to prevent the other branches from becoming too powerful or authoritative.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution establishes the Judicial Branch of the United States. And through interpretation of this Article, Chief Justice Marshall also set the precedent that the Judicial Branch shall also have the power of Judicial Review. It’s a fun case and we’ll get into it in a minute.
So, why is any of this important to your life?
Well, besides it being important knowledge for any citizen, it is also a crucial basis for the rest of what this blog will be covering. In an era where the courts are becoming a political tool to oppose government action that many citizens disagree with, it’s important for activists and concerned citizens alike to understand just how the courts should be used in advancing their goals.
The court system of the United States is set up to be the interpreter of laws, and to land rulings that often decide the fate of controversial laws, as it relates to their constitutionality. When the opposition is in control and is able to run a number of laws through congress and the executive that many on the other side find unfitting to our nation, it often falls to the judiciary to be the final check to stop said legislation.
The power to do this is not actually strictly described in the constitution, and can often be a point of controversy itself. It all starts with the Judiciary Act of 1789 and a scorned justice of the peace, and ends with a judicial opinion that would permanently alter the trajectory of the Supreme Court.
The full details of Marbury V. Madison are extensive, and well worth the read. But for the sake of simplicity, here are the basic facts: After losing his bid for re-election, President John Adams attempted to pack the courts with Federalist appointees to help keep a check on the incoming administration of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson, however, took office before all of the commissions could be delivered, and immediately ordered that any remaining commissions not be delivered nor filled by Adams’ picks. One of these would-be Justices of the Peace was William Marbury, who felt he was wronged sought out a writ of mandamus, which was a power he Judiciary act of 1789 gave the Judicial branch to essentially order government officials to follow through with an obligation. After a hearing before the Supreme Court, the court delivered a unanimous verdict finding Marbury was entitled to his position; however, the Court would not issue a writ of mandamus because that was outside of their constitutional authority.
Confusing right? Well, the bare bones of it are this: by issuing this verdict, Chief Justice John Marshall included in his opinion describing the courts decisions that,
“It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is… If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each. So, if a law be in opposition to the Constitution… the Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.”
This, is the precedent for judicial review. By hearing the case of Marbury V. Madison, the court also had to decide if certain sections of the Judiciary Act of 1789 violated the constitution, which the Supreme Court at the time felt that it did.
The long term picture? The Judicial Branch of the United States, form that point forward, has the power to determine the constitutionality of laws passed by congress or orders given by the executive branch.
This is why, even if Congress and the President attempt to pass and enforce a radical agenda that is a dangerous departure from the mission and promise of the United States, there is still a solution in the judiciary. The constitution is one of the finest pieces of legal work ever scribed, and the courts serve as its ultimate interpreter and protector. We are lucky to have them, and we are lucky Chief Justice Marshall ensured their powers of checks and balances included Judicial Review.