The 214th Anniversary of Marbury v. Madison

On February 24, 1803, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Marbury v. Madison and confirmed the legal principle of judicial review – the ability of courts to limit congressional power by declaring legislation unconstitutional.

The portion of the Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, confirming the principle of judicial review reads –

Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently, the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void.

This theory is essentially attached to a written constitution, and is, consequently, to be considered, by this court, as one of the fundamental principles of our society. It is not therefore to be lost sight of in the further consideration of this subject.

If an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void, does it, notwithstanding its invalidity, bind the courts, and oblige them to give it effect? Or, in other words, though it be not law, does it constitute a rule as operative as if it was a law? This would be to overthrow in fact what was established in theory; and would seem, at first view, an absurdity too gross to be insisted on. It shall, however, receive a more attentive consideration.

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.

So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.

If, then, the courts are to regard the constitution, and the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply. (Emphasis added)


To learn more about the Court’s decision and the lasting impact of Marbury’s confirmation of the principle of judicial review, check out these resources –

(1) CSPAN Landmark Cases Discussion with Akhil Reed Amar and Cliff Sloan

(2) Gordon S. Wood, The Origins of Judicial Review Revisited, or How the Marshall Court Made More out of Less

(3) William Treanor, Judicial Review before Marbury

(4) Saikrishna B. Prakasht and John C. Yoo, The Origins of Judicial Review


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