Only $35.99/year

Terms in this set (31)

Although judicial review is the most important judicial power, the framers did not include it in the constitutional powers of the judicial branch. In fact, it was not even clear that the judiciary had this power until 1803, when the Supreme Court decided the tremendously influential case Marbury v. Madison.

When Marbury v. Madison came before the Supreme Court, John Marshall sat as chief justice. Marshall strongly believed that the Supreme Court should be the final judge of whether or not a law was constitutional. The difficulty Marshall faced was that the courts had no way of enforcing their own decisions. If the Supreme Court did assert the right of judicial review and declare a law unconstitutional, there was a real possibility that the legislative and executive branches would simply ignore the Court's decision.

In Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice Marshall saw his chance to exercise the power of judicial review without provoking the opposition of the other two branches of government. The case involved a dispute between William Marbury and Secretary of State James Madison.

Marbury had been appointed to a federal judgeship by President John Adams shortly before Adams was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. Upon becoming president, Jefferson ordered Madison, the new secretary of state, not to finalize paperwork on Marbury's appointment because Jefferson considered Marbury a political opponent.

In a lawsuit against Secretary of State Madison, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus forcing Madison to finalize Marbury's judicial appointment. A writ of mandamus is a judicial order that commands a public official to do something the court regards as an absolute duty, not a choice. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court the authority to issue writs of mandamus, a power not granted to the court by the Constitution.

Chief Justice Marshall devised a way to expand the Supreme Court's power while still coming to a decision that the Jefferson administration would accept. In his opinion, which was approved unanimously by the rest of the court, Marshall ruled that the Judiciary Act's expansion of the court's authority to include writs of mandamus was equivalent to changing the Constitution. Marshall declared that any law that was "repugnant" (contradictory) to the Constitution was illegal and therefore could not be enforced. On the basis of this reasoning, Marshall concluded that although Secretary of State Madison had acted improperly, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue Madison a writ of mandamus, meaning Marbury would not receive his judgeship. The executive branch accepted and enforced the decision because it suited the political purposes of President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison.

Through its successful exercise of judicial review, the Supreme Court's decision greatly increased the authority of the judicial branch. Marbury v. Madison—the first time in US history that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional—set a powerful precedent for the future. The case definitively established the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, giving the judicial branch the exclusive right to interpret the Constitution and evaluate the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions.
The Supreme Court hears between 80 and 150 cases a year, out of approximately 7,000 petitions for review. Very few cases fall under original jurisdiction. In the vast majority of the cases it hears, the Supreme Court holds appellate jurisdiction; that is, the Court has agreed to review the decision of a lower court.

Most Supreme Court cases come from the state supreme courts and the federal courts of appeals. Some are drawn from federal district courts. Cases from the Court of Military Appeals remain rare. The Supreme Court carries the final word on any question involving the Constitution, acts of the executive or legislative branches, and US treaties.

William Rehnquist, who was appointed chief justice in 1986, observed that three factors make it more likely for the court to hear a case:

-Two lower courts have come to different decisions about the case.
-A lower court's decision conflicts with an existing Supreme Court ruling.
-The decision has significance beyond the parties in the case.

A minimum of four justices must agree to consider a case for the Supreme Court to hear it. If the Court declines to hear a case, then the decision of the lower court stands.

The Court also maintains the option of remanding a case, or sending it back to a lower court with instructions to review the judgment in light of new decisions or other developments.

If the court declines to hear a case, it does not necessarily mean that it agrees with the decision of the lower court. The Court will not hear hypothetical objections to laws; rather, it will hear only cases in which the person suing has suffered real harm from the law. The court is also very reluctant to involve itself in controversial subjects unless it has good reason, especially if that means overruling the elected branches of the government.