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?
Simply put, the Supreme Court ended up ruling that when a law in Congress and a law of a state are in conflict, Congressional law reigns supreme. So if we were to picture the priority that different levels of law take on a ladder, the top rung would be the Constitution, which was supported by Marbury v. Madison, then federal law, supported by Gibbons v. Ogden, followed by state law, and then finally local law.
McCulloch v. Maryland
You may now also be thinking, 'Does the Constitution have to specifically mention what Congress and states can and cannot do?' The short answer is no. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Supreme Court stated that a specific mentioning of a power is not necessary to establish a power.
In this case, it was the establishment of a federal bank in the state of Maryland. Many branches of the Bank of the United States were opened throughout the country, but some states did not like these branches. The national banks competed with state banks, and people thought that the national banks were corrupt. Maryland felt that the U.S. government had no authority to even create a national bank.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court reiterated that a Congressional law always outranks a state law, and also pointed to the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, which states that Congress may establish laws that are related to their specifically mentioned powers as long as it is 'rationally related' to a main power and is not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. In other words, Congress can perform actions and pass laws if a convincing argument can be made that their objective is related to those powers specifically given to it in the Constitution and are not specifically banned elsewhere in the Constitution. So in this case, a convincing argument was made that the establishment of a national bank would be necessary and proper because there might be many things that the government must do that would be helped by the creation of a national bank.
Let's review. The cases we just discussed concerned specific articles of the Constitution and the conflicts that different levels of government might have with one another.
- Marbury v. Madison established the concept of judicial review and affirmed the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land
- Gibbons v. Ogden stated that a federal law supersedes a state law
- McCulloch v. Maryland added that the federal government can do things even if they are not specifically mentioned as powers in the Constitution
While these cases may be hard to remember separately, consider that Marbury v. Madison is where all major Supreme Court decisions start, as it set the precedent for all major decisions that would follow. The other two cases concern the powers of Congress found in Article I and whose laws are second in importance to the Constitution.
Vocabulary & Definitions
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.
Original jurisdiction allows a court to hear a case for the first time rather than waiting to review a case from an appellate jurisdiction.
Appellate jurisdictions is a lower court.
Necessary and Proper Clause is within the Constitution and states that Congress may establish laws that are related to their specifically mentioned powers as long as it is 'rationally related' to a main power and is not specifically forbidden by the Constitution.
Some of the benefits of understanding this lesson include the ability to do the following:
- Define judicial review
- Summarize three landmark court cases that conflicted with articles of the Constitution