The Establishment of Judicial Review

Judicial review is one of the distinctive features of United States constitutional law. It is no small wonder, then, to find that the power of the federal courts to test federal and state legislative enactments and other actions by the standards of what the Constitution grants and withholds is nowhere expressly conveyed. But it is hardly noteworthy that its legitimacy has been challenged from the first, and, while now accepted generally, it still has detractors and its supporters disagree about its doctrinal basis and its application.726 Although it was first asserted in Marbury v. Madison727 to strike down an act of Congress as inconsistent with the Constitution, judicial review did not spring full-blown from the brain of Chief Justice Marshall. The concept had been long known, having been utilized in a much more limited form by Privy Council review of colonial legislation and its validity under the colonial charters,728 and there were several instances known to the Framers of state court invalidation of state legislation as inconsistent with state constitutions.729

Practically all of the framers who expressed an opinion on the issue in the Convention appear to have assumed and welcomed the existence of court review of the constitutionality of legislation,730 and prior to Marbury the power seems very generally to have been assumed to exist by the Justices themselves.731 In enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress explicitly provided for the exercise of the power,732 and in other debates questions of constitutionality and of judicial review were prominent.733 Nonetheless, although judicial review is consistent with several provisions of the Constitution and the argument for its existence may be derived from them, these provisions do not compel the conclusion that the Framers intended judicial review nor that it must exist. It was Chief Justice Marshall’s achievement that, in doubtful circumstances and an awkward position, he carried the day for the device, which, though questioned, has expanded and become solidified at the core of constitutional jurisprudence.

Marbury v. Madison.

Chief Justice Marshall’s argument for judicial review of congressional acts in Marbury v. Madison734 had been largely anticipated by Hamilton.735 Hamilton had written, for example: “The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. 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 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.”736

At the time of the change of administration from Adams to Jefferson, several commissions of appointment to office had been signed but not delivered and were withheld on Jefferson’s express instruction. Marbury sought to compel the delivery of his commission by seeking a writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court in the exercise of its original jurisdiction against Secretary of State Madison. Jurisdiction was based on § 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789,737 which Marbury, and ultimately the Supreme Court, interpreted to authorize the Court to issue writs of mandamus in suits in its original jurisdiction.738 Though deciding all the other issues in Marbury’s favor, the Chief Justice wound up concluding that the § 13 authorization was an attempt by Congress to expand the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond the constitutional prescription and was therefore void.739

“The question, whether an act, repugnant to the constitution, can become the law of the land, is a question deeply interesting to the United States,” Marshall began his discussion of this final phase of the case, “but, happily, not of an intricacy proportioned to its interest.”740 First, Marshall recognized certain fundamental principles. The people had come together to establish a government. They provided for its organization and assigned to its various departments their powers and established certain limits not to be transgressed by those departments. The limits were expressed in a written constitution, which would serve no purpose “if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained.” Because the Constitution is “a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, . . . a legislative act contrary to the constitution is not law.”741 “If an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void, does it, notwithstanding its invalidity, bind the courts, and oblige them to give it effect?” The answer, thought the Chief Justice, was obvious. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.”742

“So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.”743

“If, then, the courts are to regard the constitution, and the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.”744 To declare otherwise, Chief Justice Marshall said, would be to permit the legislature to “pass[ ] at pleasure” the limits imposed on its powers by the Constitution.745

The Chief Justice then turned from the philosophical justification for judicial review as arising from the very concept of a written constitution, to specific clauses of the Constitution. The judicial power, he observed, was extended to “all cases arising under the constitution.”746 It was “too extravagant to be maintained that the Framers had intended that a case arising under the constitution should be decided without examining the instrument under which it arises.”747 Suppose, he said, that Congress laid a duty on an article exported from a state or passed a bill of attainder or an ex post facto law or provided that treason should be proved by the testimony of one witness. Would the courts enforce such a law in the face of an express constitutional provision? They would not, he continued, because their oath required by the Constitution obligated them to support the Constitution and to enforce such laws would violate the oath.748 Finally, the Chief Justice noted that the Supremacy Clause (Art. VI, cl. 2) gave the Constitution precedence over laws and treaties, providing that only laws “which shall be made in pursuance of the constitution” shall be the supreme law of the land.749

The decision in Marbury v. Madison has never been disturbed, although it has been criticized and has had opponents throughout our history. It not only carried the day in the federal courts, but from its announcement judicial review by state courts of local legislation under local constitutions made rapid progress and was securely established in all states by 1850.750

Judicial Review and National Supremacy.

Even many per- sons who have criticized the concept of judicial review of congressional acts by the federal courts have thought that review of state acts under federal constitutional standards is soundly based in the Supremacy Clause, which makes the Constitution, laws enacted pursuant to the Constitution, and treaties the supreme law of the land,751 and which Congress effectuated by enacting § 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.752 Five years before Marbury v. Madison, the Court held invalid a state law as conflicting with the terms of a treaty,753 and seven years after Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion it voided a state law as conflicting with the Constitution.754

Virginia provided a states’ rights challenge to a broad reading of the Supremacy Clause and to the validity of § 25 in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee755 and in Cohens v. Virginia.756 In both cases, it was argued that while the courts of Virginia were constitutionally obliged to prefer “the supreme law of the land,” as set out in the Supremacy Clause, over conflicting state constitutional provisions and laws, it was only by their own interpretation of the supreme law that they as courts of a sovereign state were bound. Furthermore, it was contended that cases did not “arise” under the Constitution unless they were brought in the first instance by someone claiming such a right, from which it followed that “the judicial power of the United States” did not “extend” to such cases unless they were brought in the first instance in the courts of the United States. But Chief Justice Marshall rejected this narrow interpretation: “A case in law or equity consists of the right of the one party, as well as of the other, and may truly be said to arise under the Constitution or a law of the United States, whenever its correct decision depends upon the construction of either.”757 Passing on to the power of the Supreme Court to review such decisions of the state courts, he said: “Let the nature and objects of our Union be considered: let the great fundamental principles on which the fabric stands, be examined: and we think, the result must be, that there is nothing so extravagantly absurd, in giving to the Court of the nation the power of revising the decisions of local tribunals, on questions which affect the nation, as to require that words which import this power should be restricted by a forced construction.”758


See the richly detailed summary and citations to authority in G. GUNTHER, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW 1–38 (12th ed. 1991); For expositions on the legitimacy of judicial review, see L. HAND, THE BILL OF RIGHTS (1958); H. WECHSLER, PRINCIPLES, POLITICS, AND FUNDAMENTAL LAW:SELECTED ESSAYS 1–15 (1961); A. BICKEL, THE LEAST DANGEROUS BRANCH: THE SUPREME COURT AT THE BAR OF POLITICS 1–33 (1962); R. BERGER, CONGRESS V. THE SUPREME COURT (1969). For an extensive historical attack on judicial review, see 2 W. CROSSKEY, POLITICS AND THE CONSTITUTION IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES chs. 27–29 (1953), with which compare Hart, Book Review, 67 HARV. L. REV. 1456 (1954). A brief review of the ongoing debate on the subject, in a work that now is a classic attack on judicial review, is Westin, Introduction: Charles Beard and American Debate over Judicial Review, 1790–1961, in C. BEARD, THE SUPREME COURT AND THE CONSTITUTION 1–34 (1962 reissue of 1938 ed.), and bibliography at 133–149. While much of the debate focuses on judicial review of acts of Congress, the similar review of state acts has occasioned much controversy as well. [Back to text]
5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803). A state act was held inconsistent with a treaty in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 199 (1796). [Back to text]
J. Goebel, supra at 60–95. [Back to text]
Id. at 96–142. [Back to text]
M. Farrand, supra at 97–98 (Gerry), 109 (King), 2 id. at 28 (Morris and perhaps Sherman). 73 (Wilson), 75 (Strong, but the remark is ambiguous). 76 (Martin), 78 (Mason), 79 (Gorham, but ambiguous), 80 (Rutledge), 92–93 (Madison), 248 (Pinckney), 299 (Morris), 376 (Williamson), 391 (Wilson), 428 (Rutledge), 430 (Madison), 440 (Madison), 589 (Madison); 3 id. at 220 (Martin). The only expressed opposition to judicial review came from Mercer with a weak seconding from Dickinson. “Mr. Mercer . . . disapproved of the Doctrine that the Judges as expositors of the Constitution should have authority to declare a law void. He thought laws ought to be well and cautiously made, and then to be uncontroulable.” 2 id. at 298. “Mr. Dickinson was strongly impressed with the remark of Mr. Mercer as to the power of the Judges to set aside the law. He thought no such power ought to exist. He was at the same time at a loss what expedient to substitute.” Id. at 299. Of course, the debates in the Convention were not available when the state ratifying conventions acted, so that the delegates could not have known these views about judicial review in order to have acted knowingly about them. Views, were, however, expressed in the ratifying conventions recognizing judicial review, some of them being uttered by Framers. 2 J. ELLIOT, DEBATES IN THE SEVERAL STATE CONVENTIONS ON THE ADOPTION OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION (1836). 131 (Samuel Adams, Massachusetts), 196–197 (Ellsworth, Connecticut). 348, 362 (Hamilton, New York): 445–446. 478 (Wilson, Pennsylvania), 3 id. at 324–25, 539, 541 (Henry, Virginia), 480 (Mason, Virginia), 532 (Madison, Virginia), 570 (Randolph, Virginia); 4 id. at 71 (Steele, North Carolina), 156–157 (Davie, North Carolina). In the Virginia convention, John Marshall observed if Congress “were to make a law not warranted by any of the powers enumerated, it would be considered by the judge as an infringement of the Constitution which they are to guard . . . They would declare it void . . . . To what quarter will you look for protection from an infringement on the constitution, if you will not give the power to the judiciary? There is no other body that can afford such a protection.” 3 id. at 553–54. Both Madison and Hamilton similarly asserted the power of judicial review in their campaign for ratification. THE FEDERALIST (J. Cooke ed. 1961). See Nos. 39 and 44, at 256, 305 (Madison), Nos. 78 and 81, at 524–530, 541–552 (Hamilton). The persons supporting or at least indicating they thought judicial review existed did not constitute a majority of the Framers, but the absence of controverting statements, with the exception of the Mercer-Dickinson comments, indicates at least acquiescence if not agreements by the other Framers. To be sure, subsequent comments of some of the Framers indicate an understanding contrary to those cited in the convention. See, e.g., Charles Pinckney in 1799: “On no subject am I more convinced, than that it is an unsafe and dangerous doctrine in a republic, ever to suppose that a judge ought to possess the right of questioning or deciding upon the constitutionality of treaties, laws, or any act of the legislature. It is placing the opinion of an individual, or of two or three, above that of both branches of Congress, a doctrine which is not warranted by the Constitution, and will not, I hope, long have many advocates in this country.” STATE TRIALS OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMINISTRATIONS OF WASHINGTON AND ADAMS 412 (F. Wharton ed., 1849). Madison’s subsequent changes of position are striking. His remarks in the Philadelphia Convention, in the Virginia ratifying convention, and in The Federalist, cited above, all unequivocally favor the existence of judicial review. And in Congress arguing in support of the constitutional amendments providing a bill of rights, he observed: “If they are incorporated into the Constitution, independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the Legislature or Executive; they will be naturally led to resist every encroachment upon rights expressly stipulated for in the Constitution by the declaration of rights,” 1 ANNALS OF CONGRESS 457 (1789); 5 WRITINGS OF JAMES MADISON 385 (G. Hunt ed., 1904). Yet, in a private letter in 1788, he wrote: “In the state constitutions and indeed in the federal one also, no provision is made for the case of a disagreement in expounding them; and as the courts are generally the last in making the decision, it results to them by refusing or not refusing to execute a law, to stamp it with the final character. This makes the Judiciary Department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended and can never be proper.” Id. at 294. At the height of the dispute over the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison authored a resolution ultimately passed by the Virginia legislature which, though milder, and more restrained than one authored by Jefferson and passed by the Kentucky legislature, asserted the power of the states, though not of one state or of the state legislatures alone, to “interpose” themselves to halt the application of an unconstitutional law. 3 I. BRANT, JAMES MADISON: FATHER OF THE CONSTITUTION, 1787–1800 460–464, 467–471 (1950); Report on the Resolutions of 1798, 6 Writings of James Madison, op. cit., 341–406. Embarrassed by the claim of the nullificationists in later years that his resolution supported their position, Madison distinguished his and their positions and again asserted his belief in judicial review. 6 I. Brant, supra, 481–485, 488–489. The various statements made and positions taken by the Framers have been culled and categorized and argued over many times. For a recent compilation reviewing the previous efforts, see R. Berger, supra, chs. 3–4. [Back to text]
Thus, the Justices on circuit refused to administer a pension act on the grounds of its unconstitutionally, see Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792), and “Finality of Judgment as an Attribute of Judicial Power,” supra. Chief Justice Jay and other Justices wrote that the imposition of circuit duty on Justices was unconstitutional, although they never mailed the letter, supra, in Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 171 (1796), a feigned suit, the constitutionality of a federal law was argued before the Justices and upheld on the merits, in Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 199 (1797), a state law was overturned, and dicta in several opinions asserted the principle. See Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386, 399 (1798) (Justice Iredell), and several Justices on circuit, quoted in J. Goebel, supra, at 589–592. [Back to text]
In enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73, Congress chose not to vest “federal question” jurisdiction in the federal courts but to leave to the state courts the enforcement of claims under the Constitution and federal laws. In § 25, 1 Stat. 85, Congress provided for review by the Supreme Court of final judgments in state courts (1) “. . . where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of, or an authority exercised under the United States, and the decision is against their validity;” (2) “. . . where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of, or an authority exercised under any State, on the ground of their being repugnant to the constitution, treaties or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of their validity;” or (3) “. . . where is drawn in question the construction of any clause of the constitution, or of a treaty, or statute of, or commission held under the United States, and the decision is against the title, right, privilege or exemption specially set up or claimed” thereunder. The ruling below was to be “re-examined and reversed or affirmed in the Supreme Court . . . .” [Back to text]
See in particular the debate on the President’s removal powers, discussed supra, “The Removal Power” with statements excerpted in R. Berger, supra at 144–150. Debates on the Alien and Sedition Acts and on the power of Congress to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 similarly saw recognition of judicial review of acts of Congress. C. Warren, supra at 107–124. [Back to text]
5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803). [Back to text]
THE FEDERALIST, Nos. 78 and 81 (J. Cooke ed. 1961), 521–530, 541–552. [Back to text]
Id., No. at 78, 525. [Back to text]
1 Stat. 73, 80. [Back to text]
The section first denominated the original jurisdiction of the Court and then described the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Following and indeed attached to the sentence on appellate jurisdiction, being separated by a semicolon, is the language saying “and shall have power to issue . . . writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.” The Chief Justice could easily have interpreted the authority to have been granted only in cases under appellate jurisdiction or as authority conferred in cases under both original and appellate jurisdiction when the cases are otherwise appropriate for one jurisdiction or the other. Textually, the section does not compel a reading that Congress was conferring on the Court an original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus per se. [Back to text]
Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137, 173–180 (1803). For a classic treatment of Marbury, see Van Alstyne, A Critical Guide to Marbury v. Madison, 1969 DUKE L. J. 1. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 176. One critic has written that by this question Marshall “had already begged the question-in-chief, which was not whether an act repugnant to the Constitution could stand, but who should be empowered to decide that the act is repugnant.” A. Bickel, supra at 3. Marshall, however, soon reached this question, though more by way of assertion than argument. 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) at 177–78. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 176–77. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 177. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 178. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 177–78. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 178. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 178. The reference is, of course, to the first part of clause 1, § 2, Art. III: “The judicial power shall extend to all Cases . . . arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority. . . .” Compare A. Bickel, supra at 5–6, with R. Berger, supra at 189–222. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 179. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 179–80. The oath provision is contained in Art. VI, cl. 3. Compare A. Bickel, supra at 7–8, with R. Berger, supra at 237–244. [Back to text]
5 U.S. at 180. Compare A. Bickel, supra at 8–12, with R. Berger, supra at 223–284. [Back to text]
E. CORWIN, THE DOCTRINE OF JUDICIAL REVIEW 75–78 (1914); Nelson, Changing Conceptions of Judicial Review: The Evolution of Constitution Theory in the State, 1790–1860, 120 U. P1790–1860, 120 U. PA. L. REV. 1166 (1972). [Back to text]
2 W. Crosskey, supra at 989. See the famous remark of Holmes: “I do not think the United States would come to an end if we lost our power to declare an Act of Congress void. I do think the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as the laws of the several States.” O. HOLMES, COLLECTED LEGAL PAPERS 295–296 (1921). [Back to text]
1 Stat. 73, 85, quoted supra. [Back to text]
Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 190 (1796). [Back to text]
Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cr.) 87 (1810). The case came to the Court by appeal from a circuit court and not from a state court under § 25. Famous early cases coming to the Court under § 25 in which state laws were voided included Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 122 (1819); and McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819). [Back to text]
14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816). [Back to text]
19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821). [Back to text]
19 U.S. at 379. [Back to text]
19 U.S. at 422–23. Justice Story traversed much of the same ground in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816). In Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859), the Wisconsin Supreme Court had declared an act of Congress invalid and disregarded a writ of error from the Supreme Court, raising again the Virginia arguments. Chief Justice Taney emphatically rebuked the assertions on grounds both of dual sovereignty and national supremacy. His emphasis on the indispensability of the federal judicial power to maintain national supremacy, to protect the states from national encroachments, and to make the Constitution and laws of the United States uniform all combine to enhance the federal judicial power to a degree perhaps beyond that envisaged even by Story and Marshall. As late as Williams v. Bruffy, 102 U.S. 248 (1880), the concepts were again thrashed out with the refusal of a Virginia court to enforce a mandate of the Supreme Court. See also Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958). [Back to text]