As I wrote last week, the Judicial Branch’s immense power of judicial review, the ability to nullify legislative and executive actions, is a continuously debated topic in American politics. Another such debate has started again, over the court’s powers regarding immigration.
Just this past week, the Daily Wire reported that “a federal judge in Hawaii issued one of the most inane and insane judicial rulings in recent memory, placing a national temporary restraining order on President Trump’s revised executive order concerning refugees and immigration.” This is the second time an immigration order from President Trump has been interfered with in quick fashion by the Judicial Branch.
However, America’s third federal branch did not always have such wide-reaching power. Our nation’s first Supreme Court, as designed by Congress in 1789, contained only six justices. The Court was not heavily assumed to be ruling on cases pertaining to major legislation and executive actions, hence the even number of justices. These early justices did not have highly coveted positions either; the job was extremely taxing and required much traveling, as “Congress required the justices of the Supreme Court to preside with the local federal judges on the U.S. circuit courts that met in judicial districts throughout the nation.”
It is safe to say that the Judicial Branch, at this time, was neither powerful nor widely feared. But everything changed in 1801.
The Rise of John Marshall
John Marshall became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, and immediately began to reform the Court’s image and prestige. Marshall was the first person to require that Supreme Court Justices wear black robes, and centralized their collective work in one rooming house.
Marshall also realized that the Court was still viewed as the weakest and “least dangerous” branch when he assumed his position. Marshall changed this when he helped reformed the Court’s power in 1803 through the Court’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison.
The Birth of Judicial Review
Indisputably, one of the most important and most fascinating Supreme Court cases in American history is Marbury v. Madison. The case involved and spotlighted the warring political factions of the Federalists and Republicans, as well as the less than amicable cousins President Jefferson and Chief Justice Marshall. For many reasons which fall beyond the scope of this article, this case was just as much a political ruling as it was a legal decision.
The facts of the case can succinctly be summed up as follows:
“In the last days of President John Adams’ presidency, he nominated a number of people to serve as justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed the nominations, and the commissions were prepared. President Adams’ Secretary of State, John Marshall, did not deliver all of the commissions before President Thomas Jefferson took office. President Jefferson then ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the commissions. The plaintiffs, men whose commissions were not delivered, sued Madison in the Supreme Court and argued that, in refusing to deliver the commissions, the Secretary of State was neglecting his Constitutional duty.”
The opinion of the Supreme Court, delivered by Chief Justice Marshall, was unanimous. The Court ruled that Marbury was legally owed his commission, and he was legally allowed to sue for his commission. However, the Court also ruled that it was not able to grant Marbury his commission. The Court determined that the congressional act granting the Court the power to do so was unconstitutionally in conflict with Article III, Section 2.
While this may sound like just another boring case, it established the right of judicial review for the Supreme Court. In short, had Chief Justice Marshall not written that “it is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is,” the Judicial Branch would not be nearly as important as it is today.