Marbury v. Madison and the Marshall Court

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What important legal principle did United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall pronounce in Marbury v. Madison?

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The landmark ruling in Marbury v Madison (1803) established the principle that the Supreme Court has the right to strike down legislative acts for being unconstitutional. Prior to the case, the Supreme Court didn't have this power; as a result, it was easily the least significant branch of government.

All that changed with Marbury. Since then, the Supreme Court has played an important and often contentious role in American politics. What is ironic about this case is that the Supreme Court struck down a law which had actually given it more power—the power to decide on the legality of judicial appointments. In abjuring this power, the Court was giving with one hand while taking with the other; it was giving up a specific power awarded to it by Congress while at the same time arrogating to itself the general, more far-reaching power of judicial review.

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The important legal principle that was set forth in this case was the principle of judicial review.  This is the idea that the judicial branch (of which the Supreme Court is the highest level) has the right and the duty to decide when the actions of one of the other branches of government are unconstitutional.  If the Court makes such a decision, the action of Congress (or the President) is nullified.

Today, we take this idea for granted.  There have been many important Supreme Court cases (such as Brown v. Board of Educationand Roe v. Wade) in which the Supreme Court has struck down the actions of other parts of the government.  But the Constitution does not explicitly give the judicial branch this power.  In Marbury,Marshall simply claims the power of judicial review.  He was successful in doing so and judicial review is now one of the fundamental ideas of our political and legal system.

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