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Judiciary, Responsibilities of the Supreme Court

case of Marbury, highest law, Chief Justice John Marshall, congressional legislation, American legal system

An important feature of the American legal system is the practice of judicial review. The most important exercise of judicial review is by the Supreme Court. The court can determine whether a statute or executive action conforms to the rules and principles laid down in the Constitution. It can strike down laws that it considers unconstitutional. Judicial review does not belong exclusively to the Supreme Court; in appropriate cases, every court may strike down laws that violate the Constitution. Although judicial review adds flexibility to the Constitution—allowing it to be interpreted for changing times—this power is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.

In the years following the adoption of the Constitution, the Court and Congress debated whether the judiciary actually had the power of judicial review. The issue was resolved in 1803, when in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Court firmly established the power of the judiciary to review acts of Congress and decide if they were constitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned that the Constitution was the highest law of the nation, and that with respect to congressional legislation, the Constitution was “superior…law, unchangeable by ordinary means.” Consequently, Madison argued, if the judiciary interpreted a law or statute as contradicting the Constitution, the courts could nullify it.

Marshall established the common-sense view that within the three branches of government, courts are especially qualified to rule whether legislation is constitutional. Marshall held that judicial power resided in the court’s authority to interpret the Constitution. This principle has been accepted ever since. Although the judicial override has more often been a threat than a reality—by 1998 the Supreme Court had struck down federal laws and executive orders only 127 times—it still is a powerful tool. However, as with all federal courts, some Americans have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have that power without its members being elected by the people.

The Supreme Court decides appeals and constitutional issues. It also has jurisdiction over various kinds of other cases. These cases include those involving public officials such as ambassadors or consuls, or those where a state is a party in the case.



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