Landmark Cases Based on Constitutional Articles

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  • 0:00 Landmark U.S. Supreme…
  • 1:06 Marbury v. Madison
  • 3:36 Gibbons v. Ogden
  • 5:17 McCulloch v. Maryland
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

This lesson will take a look at a collection of Supreme Court cases that have shaped how the Court has settled conflicts between different levels of government. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases

It's a fact of life that people don't always agree on things. Disagreements could be over simple things, like whether or not a popular song is good and can extend to some pretty serious things, like disagreeing on whether or not same-sex couples should have the right to marry. Most simple disagreements can usually be settled between the two parties involved without having to involve anyone else. But how do people go about solving some of the bigger society-altering disagreements?

Luckily, there is a path for deciding these big disagreements through our legal system. Many courts may hear the different sides of an argument, but our Supreme Court has the final say. However, no matter what case makes it to the Supreme Court, the important thing to remember here is that the Supreme Court only hears cases that come into conflict with the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has been responsible for many landmark decisions that cover a whole array of different topics, but in this particular lesson, we will discuss landmark cases that involve specific articles of the Constitution. The cases we will discuss are Marbury v. Madison, Gibbons v. Ogden, and McCulloch v. Maryland.

Marbury v. Madison

Our first case, Marbury v. Madison, is really where the Supreme Court began down a path that allowed it to change history forever. It is this case that established the power of judicial review. Judicial review allows the Supreme Court to look at a law or act and determine if it goes against what is written in the Constitution. Funny enough, though, this isn't a power that's actually granted to the Supreme Court in Article III of the actual Constitution.

For those wondering, William Marbury was supposed to be appointed as a justice of the peace prior to Thomas Jefferson taking office. Unfortunately, Marbury did not receive the papers necessary to make his appointment official because they were not delivered in time by Secretary of State John Marshall before a new Secretary of State was appointed by Jefferson. Marbury sued, and the Supreme Court agreed that Marbury should have had his papers delivered to him. Unfortunately, they could not enforce this remedy because the power to force Marbury to get his papers came from a law that conflicted with part of the Constitution.

Specifically, the Supreme Court felt that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the court authority to issue the papers as part of its power of original jurisdiction, which allows a court to hear a case for the first time rather than waiting to review a case from a lower court, known as appellate jurisdiction. However, the Constitution specifically said that cases of original jurisdiction can only include cases that involve ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and cases where a state is a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court only has appellate jurisdiction. Thus, since the dispute between Marbury and Madison did not involve ambassadors, public ministers, consuls, or states, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to exercise its original jurisdiction in this case. And furthermore, the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Constitution were in conflict with each other. And when a law of Congress conflicts with the Constitution, the Constitution always takes top priority.

The main takeaway from this case was that when there is a conflict between state or federal laws and the Constitution, the Constitution is always the supreme law of the land. Thus, this ruling set into motion the concept of judicial review, which is an extremely powerful tool that would be used by the Supreme Court for years to come.

Gibbons v. Ogden

In our previous case, we saw the Supreme Court establish the Constitution as the supreme law of the land if it comes into conflict with a federal or state law. You now may be wondering, though, what happens if a federal and state law conflict?

In the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court was left to decide whether or not the state had the power to pass a law that directly contradicted an existing Congressional statute. In this case, the state law concerned the interstate commerce or business between states, which is specifically granted as a power of the federal government in Article I of the Constitution.

More specifically, the conflict involved Thomas Gibbons, who was operating steamboats between New York and New Jersey under a license granted by the state of New York, and Aaron Ogden, who was doing the same but who was operating, instead, under a federal coasting license, granted under a 1793 act of Congress.

The problem was that the waterway between New Jersey and New York was an interstate waterway. The business on this waterway was interstate commerce. The question was, who had the right to issue a license to operate boats on this interstate waterway - the state of New York or Congress?

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Additional Activities

Activities—Landmark Cases Based on Constitutional Articles:

Writing Activity:

Imagine you are a firm believer in states' rights and distrust the national government. It is 1819, and you've just read Chief Justice John Marshall's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland. Write a 3–4 paragraph letter to your local newspaper detailing your thoughts on that case as well as Marshall's previous rulings in Marbury and Gibbons. In each paragraph, you will want to describe how the respective case challenges your beliefs about states' rights. You may also believe in a strict-interpretation of the Constitution, namely that the Constitution says what it says and powers cannot be read into it, or implied. How did Marshall's rulings also go against that view of the Constitution?

Matrix Activity:

On a blank sheet of paper, draw a chart with 4 rows and 3 columns. In the top left box, write ''U.S. Supreme Court Case.'' In the box next to that, write ''Description'' and in the last box in the first row (column 3), write ''Significance.'' In the remaining boxes of the first column, under ''U.S. Supreme Court Case,'' write the names of the three cases which you learned about in this lesson. Complete the rest of matrix by filling in the boxes with information from the lesson. For example, for Marbury v. Madison's description, you should touch on the background of the case dealing with William Marbury, Thomas Jefferson, and why Marbury sued in the first place. For the case's significance, you should think about why we still study this case nearly 220 years after it was decided in 1803. In other words, what precedence did each case set? Completing this activity develops your skills in analyzing and synthesizing information in written form. Plus, once completed, you will have a handy study guide for the lesson!

Additional Questions to Consider:

  1. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), what did the Supreme Court rule in relation to the 1789 Judiciary Act? (Hint: the court was not a fan of the Act/)
  2. According to the Constitution, does the federal government or that of the states have the right to control interstate commerce? (Hint: Can New York regulate the trade of other states?)
  3. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) revolved around what contentious institution created by the national congress? (Hint: don't put your money in the mattress!)

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