Guardians of the Constitution and Individual Rights


Starting in New York in 1790, the early Supreme Court focused on establishing its rules and procedures and perhaps trying to carve its place as the new government’s third branch. However, given the difficulty of getting all the justices even to show up, and with no permanent home or building of its own for decades, finding its footing in the early days proved to be a monumental task. Even when the federal government moved to the nation’s capital in 1800, the Court had to share space with Congress in the Capitol building. This ultimately meant that “the high bench crept into an undignified committee room in the Capitol beneath the House Chamber.”Bernard Schwartz. 1993. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 16.

It was not until the Court’s 146th year of operation that Congress, at the urging of Chief Justice—and former president—William Howard Taft, provided the designation and funding for the Supreme Court’s own building, “on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the federal government.”“Washington D.C. A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary.” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. (March 1, 2016). It was a symbolic move that recognized the Court’s growing role as a significant part of the national government (Figure).

An image of the Supreme Court building. In the foreground, a set of stairs is bracketed by statues on either side, leading up to a portico. The portico has a roof supported by several tall columns.
The Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, was not completed until 1935. Engraved on its marble front is the motto “Equal Justice Under Law,” while its east side says, “Justice, the Guardian of Liberty.”

But it took years for the Court to get to that point, and it faced a number of setbacks on the way to such recognition. In their first case of significance, Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the justices ruled that the federal courts could hear cases brought by a citizen of one state against a citizen of another state, and that Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution did not protect the states from facing such an interstate lawsuit.Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793). However, their decision was almost immediately overturned by the Eleventh Amendment, passed by Congress in 1794 and ratified by the states in 1795. In protecting the states, the Eleventh Amendment put a prohibition on the courts by stating, “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” It was an early hint that Congress had the power to change the jurisdiction of the courts as it saw fit and stood ready to use it.

In an atmosphere of perceived weakness, the first chief justice, John Jay, an author of The Federalist Papers and appointed by President George Washington, resigned his post to become governor of New York and later declined President John Adams’s offer of a subsequent term.Associated Press. “What You Should Know About Forgotten Founding Father John Jay,” PBS Newshour. July 4, 2015. In fact, the Court might have remained in a state of what Hamilton called its “natural feebleness” if not for the man who filled the vacancy Jay had refused—the fourth chief justice, John Marshall. Often credited with defining the modern court, clarifying its power, and strengthening its role, Marshall served in the chief’s position for thirty-four years. One landmark case during his tenure changed the course of the judicial branch’s history (Figure).“Life and Legacy.” The John Marshall Foundation. (March 1, 2016).

Image A is of Justice John Jay. John is seated with his left hand on a book. Image B is of Justice John Marshall. John is standing, and holds a book is his right hand.
John Jay (a) was the first chief justice of the Supreme Court but resigned his post to become governor of New York. John Marshall (b), who served as chief justice for thirty-four years, is often credited as the major force in defining the modern court’s role in the U.S. governmental system.

In 1803, the Supreme Court declared for itself the power of judicial review, a power to which Hamilton had referred but that is not expressly mentioned in the Constitution. Judicial review is the power of the courts, as part of the system of checks and balances, to look at actions taken by the other branches of government and the states and determine whether they are constitutional. If the courts find an action to be unconstitutional, it becomes null and void. Judicial review was established in the Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, when, for the first time, the Court declared an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803). Wielding this power is a role Marshall defined as the “very essence of judicial duty,” and it continues today as one of the most significant aspects of judicial power. Judicial review lies at the core of the court’s ability to check the other branches of government—and the states.

Since Marbury, the power of judicial review has continually expanded, and the Court has not only ruled actions of Congress and the president to be unconstitutional, but it has also extended its power to include the review of state and local actions. The power of judicial review is not confined to the Supreme Court but is also exercised by the lower federal courts and even the state courts. Any legislative or executive action at the federal or state level inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution can be subject to judicial review.Stephen Hass. “Judicial Review.” National Juris University. (March 1, 2016).

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

The Supreme Court found itself in the middle of a dispute between the outgoing presidential administration of John Adams and that of incoming president (and opposition party member) Thomas Jefferson. It was an interesting circumstance at the time, particularly because Jefferson and the man who would decide the case—John Marshall—were themselves political rivals.

President Adams had appointed William Marbury to a position in Washington, DC, but his commission was not delivered before Adams left office. So Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to use its power under the Judiciary Act of 1789 and issue a writ of mandamus to force the new president’s secretary of state, James Madison, to deliver the commission documents. It was a task Madison refused to do. A unanimous Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that although Marbury was entitled to the job, the Court did not have the power to issue the writ and order Madison to deliver the documents, because the provision in the Judiciary Act that had given the Court that power was unconstitutional.Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).

Perhaps Marshall feared a confrontation with the Jefferson administration and thought Madison would refuse his directive anyway. In any case, his ruling shows an interesting contrast in the early Court. On one hand, it humbly declined a power—issuing a writ of mandamus—given to it by Congress, but on the other, it laid the foundation for legitimizing a much more important one—judicial review. Marbury never got his commission, but the Court’s ruling in the case has become more significant for the precedent it established: As the first time the Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, it established the power of judicial review, a key power that enables the judicial branch to remain a powerful check on the other branches of government.

Consider the dual nature of John Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison: On one hand, it limits the power of the courts, yet on the other it also expanded their power. Explain the different aspects of the decision in terms of these contrasting results.