The Supreme Court’s power of judicial review allows it to deem legislation or executive actions as unconstitutional. This power wasn’t granted to the Supreme Court through the Constitution, though: it comes from an 1803 court decision in the case of Marbury versus Madison.
The case’s defining decision upheld the belief that the US Constitution is a legal document. This view was in contrast to a popular opinion at the time that the document was a collection of lofty ideals, not legally binding texts. Some scholars view Marbury v. Madison as defining the three branches of government’s fundamental checks and balances.
The third president of the United States, John Adams, appointed a slew of circuit court judges and justices of the peace in March of 1801. Adams was a lame-duck president at the time, only days from the end of his term. The Senate scrambled to confirm Adams’ appointees, though some commissions remained undelivered when Adams took office.
Incoming president Thomas Jefferson considered Adams’ midnight appointments unconstitutional and told his Secretary of State, James Madison, to block undelivered commissions of Adams’ appointees. One of the appointees, William Marbury, filed a lawsuit against Madison in the Supreme Court. Marbury alleged that Madison’s refusal to submit his commission was illegal.
The Supreme Court heard the case throughout 1802 and gave its decision in March 1803, two years after Marbury was appointed to a judgeship. At the time, the case was a political scandal: if the court ruled in favor of Marbury, Jefferson would have likely ignored their ruling.
On the other hand, if the court ruled in favor of Madison, it would be viewed as a political victory for Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.
The court managed to thread this needle by delivering a non-decision. In the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall argued that Madison broke the law by refusing to deliver Marbury’s commission. However, this wasn’t the court’s final word on the case.
The court didn’t order Madison to comply with the findings regarding the commission. Instead, John Marshall wrote that the court found the law that gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases like Marbury’s was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court struck down the law that allowed them jurisdiction in Marbury v. Madison. Marshall’s opinion announced the practice of judicial review, giving US courts the ability to strike down laws that they found unconstitutional.
By striking the law down, the Supreme Court disqualified itself from ruling in Madison and Marbury’s case. Ironically, by establishing the practice of judicial review, Marshall granted courts another power that the founding fathers didn’t explicitly spell out in the Constitution.