John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and Judicial Review—How the Court Became Supreme

A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents."

—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 78

"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

—Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, 1803

Who was the most influential American of the founding era of the United States: George Washington, due to his military and political achievements? Thomas Jefferson, for the Declaration of Independence and the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase? James Madison, for his "writing" of the Constitution and subsequent service in the House of Representatives, as Secretary of State, and President? Or might it be John Marshall, who served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 34 years, longer than any other Chief Justice, and whose ground-breaking decisions still affect the lives of every American?

It is safe to say that as Madison was the "father" of the Constitution and Washington the "father of the powers of the Presidency," Marshall was the "father of the Supreme Court," almost single-handedly clarifying its powers.

What if the Supreme Court did not have the power to review laws or executive decisions, to overturn those that are "unconstitutional"? How different might life be in the United States? Until 1803, it was not a foregone conclusion that the Supreme Court of the United States would have that power, despite the fact that judicial review had its origins in early seventeen-century England and had been asserted by James Otis in the period leading up to the American Revolution. A relatively minor lawsuit led to one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in American history, Marbury v. Madison, laying the foundation for the Court's ability to render its decisions about laws and actions. In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court claimed the power to review acts of Congress and the president and deem them unconstitutional, creating a precedent for an American process of judicial review. Through the decision of Chief Justice John Marshall, then, the court assumed the powers with which it has since played such a vital role in American life.

This lesson is designed to help students understand Marshall's strategy in issuing his decision, the significance of the concept of judicial review, and the language of this watershed case.

Guiding Questions

What is the role of the Supreme Court regarding laws passed by Congress and state legislatures, and how did John Marshall's decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison help to underscore the Court's pre-eminence?

Why was the establishment of the notion of judicial review so important for the future history of the Supreme Court and the United States?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to explain

the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution

the significance of Marbury v. Madison

the concept of judicial review and how Marbury v. Madison solidified it

the relationship between the Supreme Court and laws passed by Congress and state legislatures