Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Marbury vs. Madison

If you haven't heard our President's latest ludicrously absurd remarks about the health care law, read this:  "I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."  Now think back to fifth grade Social Studies.

Uh, yeah, that whole checks and balances thing.  (Skip to 2:00 for the key visual here.  Yep, overturning a law.)  The entire point of the Supreme Court is to act as an intermediary between the legislature and the people, particularly to ensure that the other branches don't overstep their authority.  I guess somebody doesn't like the idea of limits on his power.  The fact that he was a law professor and completely misses the basic point of judicial review scares me.  We as a nation really need to know our history!

Ryan told me about this latest imbecility over breakfast this morning, and I've been wanting to write all day about Marbury vs. Madison.  I doubt many people remember that case from their U.S. History, but I'm weird like that.  Of course, the Wall Street Journal beat me to it.  Darn those professional journalists who have nothing better to do with their day.  It's a very to-the-point article, so do read it.  It doesn't go very much into the actual history of judical review, just that the Supreme Court has always been able to do what the President says is impossible.  Actually it's really, really basic civics.  And that's really the most important thing to be grasped, for sure.

A summary of the case leading to the decision in 1803:  (1803.  The Constitution was only ratified in 1788, so for almost our entire history the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws was recognized.  And not challenged again for 209 years.  Sorry, couldn't help it.)  In 1801, lame-duck President John Adams and his Federalist lame-duck Congress modified the Judiciary Act of 1789 to create several new judgeships, in order to fill them with Federalist judges, before the Democratic-Republicans took control of the presidency and the legislature.  (See?  Even then Democrats and Republicans were the same!)  Not all of the commissions were delivered by the time President Jefferson took office.  The new Secretery of State, James Madison, refused to deliver them.  One of the would-be judges, William Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to order him to do so. 

The decision:  The Supreme Court decided that Marbury did have a right to his commission, but it was not the place of the Supreme Court to enforce that right.  That power was not granted to the judiciary by the Constitution, and Congress cannot extend the power of government beyond what the Constitution states.  The part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 giving the Supreme Court that power was therefore void.  A key quote from the decision:  "A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void."  Ever since Marbury vs. Madison, the Supreme Court has been the ultimate authority in the United States on the Constitutionality of any law or executive action, and has had the power to overturn all or part of them on that basis.  This is what is meant by judicial review.  Perhaps the most famous example of the exercise of judicial review is the Dred Scott Decision.  (Look it up. :) It's good for you.)

One interesting point is that the decision was written by Chief Justice John Marshall, who was Secretary of State under President Adams!  Potential conflict of interest for sure, (Elena Kagan, anyone?) but as a result of the decision Marbury never did get his commision!  I can't stress enough the significance of this decision to American history.  Marbury vs. Madison and judicial review established a government governed by the Constituion.  In the United States of America, no person, not even the President, can freely work his will in violation of the written Constitution.

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