Judicial Review & Marbury v. Madison: A Legal Insight

Judicial review is a fundamental principle in the American legal system, allowing courts to review and invalidate laws or governmental actions that violate the Constitution. This concept, deeply embedded in the United States legal system, traces its origins to the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803.

Please read our comprehensive article on the Judiciary.

The Concept of Judicial Review

Judicial review is the power of courts to assess whether a law or governmental decree is in conflict with the Constitution. It acts as a check and balance on the powers of the other branches of government, ensuring that no law or executive action can override the supreme law of the land – the Constitution. This principle is central to the idea of constitutional government in the United States.

Origins of Judicial Review

While the concept of judicial review was not explicitly outlined in the Constitution, it was hinted at in various Federalist Papers and early legal commentaries. Federalist No. 78, written by Alexander Hamilton, argued that the judiciary would have the duty to declare void any legislative acts contrary to the Constitution, suggesting an early understanding of judicial review.

Marbury v. Madison: The Landmark Case

The landmark case that established judicial review in the United States is Marbury v. Madison. The case arose in 1803, during a tumultuous time in American politics, when outgoing President John Adams, a Federalist, made several “midnight appointments” to fill government positions with Federalists, including William Marbury as a justice of the peace. However, the new Secretary of State, James Madison, under President Thomas Jefferson, refused to deliver Marbury’s commission.

The Ruling

Chief Justice John Marshall, presiding over the case, faced a complex situation. He recognized that compelling Madison to deliver the commission via a writ of mandamus, as Marbury requested, would likely be ignored by Jefferson’s administration, potentially weakening the Court’s authority. Instead, Marshall took a different route.

Marshall ruled that while Marbury had a right to his commission, the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the authority allocated to the Court under the Constitution. Thus, the Court held that it could not issue the writ as it would be an unconstitutional extension of its jurisdiction.

The Significance of the Decision

This decision was revolutionary. For the first time, the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, establishing the Court’s role as a co-equal branch of government with the authority to invalidate laws and executive actions that contravene the Constitution. It firmly established the principle of judicial review, which has since been a cornerstone of American constitutional law.

Implications and Legacy

The ruling in Marbury v. Madison had far-reaching implications. It set a precedent for the judicial branch to act as a check on the other branches of government, safeguarding the Constitution and protecting individual rights. Over the years, judicial review has played a critical role in shaping American law and society, impacting issues ranging from civil rights to the limits of executive power.


In conclusion, judicial review is a vital mechanism in the American legal system, maintaining the supremacy of the Constitution and ensuring the separation of powers. Its origins in Marbury v. Madison set a precedent that has allowed the judiciary to play a crucial role in upholding constitutional governance in the United States. This case not only defined the power of the judiciary but also affirmed the principle that no law or government action can supersede the Constitution, a principle that continues to guide the American legal system.