Who Is to Say What the Law Is?

Throughout my six semesters of law school I probably read thousands of cases covering a wide-range of legal topics.  However, the first (and second) case assigned to me as reading in a classroom was Marbury v. Madison.  I remember that both my high school American government teacher, Coach Dan Norris, and my college political science professor, Dr. David Brodsky, said that, if I remember one thing from their class, it should be Marbury v. Madison.  Most court opinions decide a dispute between individuals and/or businesses or interpret some law.  Marbury v. Madison went further and defined the roles of our branches of government.  This case established that is was the job of the Supreme Court to decide what the law is.  In other words, it is the Supreme Court’s job to interpret laws passed by Congress to determine if the law is in conflict with the Constitution.  Furthermore, the case found that if a law is in conflict with the Constitution, it cannot stand.  In Marbury v. Madison, the Court found that the part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which attempted to add to the Constitution’s grant of jurisdiction to the Supreme Court was unlawful.  The issue boiled-down to whether the Supreme Court could issue an order (a writ of mandamus) commanding James Madison, the then secretary of state, to make William Marbury a justice of the peace.  The Supreme Court found that it could not constitutionally issue such an order. What good would a Constitution be if courts could just ignore it?  It is important to note that this power did not become really relevant again until the infamous Dredd Scott case and then not until the Great Depression where the Supreme Court had to review the laws passed by Congress in the wake of the Great Depression.  For that lesson, I must thank Coach Neil Skalitsky.

The Constitution does not address the issue of whose job it is to say what the law is.  Read Article III of our Consitutional from beginning to end.  Judicial review is not a built-in provision.  Nonetheless, in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court found that Congress had attempted to do something that was in conflict with the written Constitution and struck that action down, establishing the doctrine of judicial review.  The Supreme Court thus became a very powerful branch of government and one that could act as a check on the actions of the other branches of government.


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