February 24th 1803: Marbury v. Madison

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Inscription of Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the Supreme Court building

On this day in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison the US Supreme Court established the principle of judicial review. The principle was outlined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, the words of which are inscribed on the wall of the Supreme Court building.  The case arose when Secretary of State James Madison failed to deliver documents to Justice of the Peace for DC William Marbury which officially granted his title. The Court decided that the section of the 1789 Judiciary Act allowing Marbury to bring his claim to the Court was itself unconstitutional.

 

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William Marbury (1762-1835)

 

On February 24th the Court ruled unanimously to this effect. The decision gave the Supreme Court the power to interpret the constitution and strike down laws as ‘unconstitutional’. Since then, the Court have made many high-profile rulings branding things unconstitutional. For example: school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954); school prayer in Engel v. Vitale (1962); teaching creationism in science lessons in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor (2013).

 

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James Madison (1751-1836)

 

Given how judicial review is now the primary function of the Supreme Court, and their most famous power, it is hard to remember that this role is not established in the Constitution. When a case goes to the Supreme Court now, the questions are always: ‘Will x be declared unconstitutional?’. Most recently, the question swirled over Obamacare, same-sex marriage, the Voting Rights Act, and now recess appointments. Had Marbury not appealed his case, the Supreme Court may be a much less significant aspect of the federal government than it is today. Today, it is arguably the most important arm of the government. Congress can make law and the President enforces them, both acting within the boundaries of the Constitution, but the Supreme Court dictates what the Constitution means.

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