As the fourth Supreme Court Chief Justice of the United States of America, John Marshall created a legacy that has endured nearly two hundred years. While writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court case of Marbury vs. Madison in 1803, he single-handedly changed the course of our judicial system. He did this by granting the judicial branch the power to determine a law unconstitutional, otherwise known as judicial review. The question at hand, then, is to explore how this one ruling on a seemingly insignificant case became a worthy landmark on the timeline of United States history. Just as any decision, at any specific point in time, Marshall did not intentionally choose to eradicate the norm and clear a new path for the future. He was neither attempting to establish judicial supremacy nor rewrite the law.
Nevertheless, this seemingly ingenious decision was clearly groundbreaking in that it was the first instance on which the Supreme Court officially established its power over legislation, and has since been viewed as the basis for judicial authority (Gunnarson 2). However, John Marshall's ruling in the case of Marbury vs. Madison was undoubtedly the only logical choice, and was based on three important factors: previous models of judicial review, political interests, and the Constitution. According to Gunnarson (1), the assumption of judicial review was present before the Marbury decision, and Marshall based his opinion on theories that already existed. The first significant idea of judicial review came in May of 1787 during the Constitutional Convention. The eighth resolution of the Virginia plan recommended the formation of a council that would have the power to review and revise all acts of Congress (9). This marked the beginning of the basic ideas of judicial review.
Several months later, the debate changed from whether or not to create this Council of Revision, to who should belong on it The central argument between the delegates was whether or not judges should be allowed to be participants on the council. On the one hand, some argued that judges should be on the council to prevent Congress from exceeding its granted power (11-12). On the other hand, several delegates believed that it was not necessary for them to be on this council because as federal judges, they were already granted the right of judicial review. This proves that some delegates already believed the powers of judicial review were assumed well before John Marshall was Chief Justice. One delegate compared a judicial system without the power of checks on legislation to the absolute rule of Parliament in Great Britain (Goldstein 65).
Both Federalists and anti-Federalists reached an understanding that judicial review was necessary. Eventually, it seemed as though virtually every member of the Constitutional Convention acknowledged the practice of judicial review, yet did not deem it necessary to clearly grant these powers to the Supreme Court (Gunnarson 15). Fifteen years later, when the opinion for Marbury vs. Madison had to be written, Marshall voluntarily took advantage of the opportunity to establish a precedent. By basing his opinion on previous models of judicial review, Marshall used the powerful tool of precedent to help further his political party.
If Marshall had not established the power of judicial review through this case, he would have missed a crucial opportunity to help empower the Federalists. At the time preceding the Marbury vs. Madison case, the United States was undergoing a critical transformation. For the first time in its history, the political power was switching hands from the Federalists to the Republicans. The Federalists had lost the presidential election, and the Republicans took over many strategic political positions.
The federal courts were under a continued attack by newly appointed President Jefferson and the Republican Party who wished to bring the courts under the command of the executive branch. In spite of this, the lone area of power in Washington D.C. for the Federalists remained in the Supreme Court, where the justices served life-long terms. William Marbury, a Federalist, was fighting for his Justice of the Peace appointment made by lame-duck president John Adams (Clinton 285). One of Marshall's options was to rule in favor of Marbury, thus helping the cause of the Federalists in the short run. However, this would have angered the Republicans. Marshall realized that the Republicans would be in control for some time, and did not want to be the victim of their fury for years to come (Clinton 285).
To solve this dilemma, Marshall viewed the situation in terms of the long run, and seized an opportunity to regain some of the power taken by the Republicans. Marshall wrote in his opinion that the Constitution did not allow for the Supreme Court to rule on such a case, therefore granting it the power of judicial review. By deciding as he did, Marshall not only out shined President Jefferson, but also greatly increased the power of the Federalist dominated Supreme Court. As a lifetime member of the Supreme Court, and of the Federalist Party, it was logical for Marshall to act on personal political concerns. In turn, the doctrine of judicial review soon became the crux on which the Federalist Party relied.
As a staunch Federalist, Marshall viewed the Constitution as the fundamental law of the land. He believed a strong, central government, and popular sovereignty were two crucial elements in the success of a nation. The establishment of judicial review combined these two principle beliefs into a very convincing argument. The judicial branch had neither the power of force, which belonged to the executive branch, nor the will of the people, which belonged to the legislative branch. It did, however, have the ability to judge the laws passed by legislation and to ensure their constitutional validity. The people, not the government, are sovereign, and the Constitution reflects their ultimate will.
Therefore, by judging on the basis of our fundamental law (the Constitution), the judicial branch granted the superiority over the other two branches to the rule of the people (Wolfe 295). Thus meaning, that following the opinion written by Marshall, the Supreme Court could uphold the people's highest ideals. By exercising judicial review, the Court was simply enforcing the will of the people as expressed in the Constitution. One way to explain a specific moment in time is to relate it to other events in history. Many theories and concepts that arise are the product of the blending and molding of previous beliefs and ideals. The establishment of judicial review is a prime example.
John Marshall did not invent judicial review, yet crafted a clever way to declare its credibility. The evidence introduced in this essay supports the fact that equivalent theories of judicial review previously existed and that Marshall had no other options but to rule against Marbury as he did (Gunnarson 27). John Marshall created an outcome that best benefited his own personal and political party's interests, by establishing a check on the legislative branch and by enforcing popular sovereignty as laid out in the Constitution.