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U.S. Constitution: Definition and the Judicial Review of Marbury v. Madison

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  • 0:06 United States Constitution
  • 1:04 The Supremacy Clause
  • 2:10 United States Supreme Court
  • 2:54 Judicial Review
  • 4:27 Marbury v. Madison
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Our United States Constitution is known as the 'Supreme Law of the Land.' The United States Supreme Court determines when other laws are in conflict with the Constitution. This lesson explains the concepts of supremacy and judicial review.

United States Constitution

Though the Articles of Confederation served as our nation's first constitution, this document was limited. It mostly set out the way Congress had already been operating for several years, and it allowed the states to continue working as individual units. A revised system of government was introduced through the United States Constitution. This document was drafted in 1787. This was several years before the end of the Revolutionary War and Britain's recognition of the United States as an independent country.

The Constitution was specifically designed to limit the power of government while ensuring basic personal rights for American citizens. The Constitution created our federal government so it would operate much as we know it today. It's the basis of our current federal law system. It sets out how our government runs and outlines which laws may or may not be enforced.

The Supremacy Clause

Article VI of the Constitution states that the 'Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof...shall be the Supreme Law of the Land.' This is known as the Supremacy Clause. The Supremacy Clause prohibits state governments from passing laws that conflict with federal laws, and it prohibits any entity from enforcing laws that are in conflict with the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was purposefully weak. So this clause was new and unique to the United States, and it established a different way of thinking about the federal government.

For example, suppose the state of Kentucky decides it can save millions of dollars by requiring citizens to pay for their own criminal trials. The state then tells all criminal defendants that they may have a jury trial, but they must first pay the state a $5,000 fee. Because this law is contrary to the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution, it can't legally be enforced.

United States Supreme Court

The framers of our Constitution intentionally created a strong federal government made from three branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The United States Supreme Court serves as the judicial branch and was created through Article III. The Supreme Court serves as the highest court in the nation and has the final, or supreme, say. The Supreme Court settles disputes involving new laws and rules on the constitutionality of laws. This means that the Court can invalidate a law if it determines that the law doesn't match with the Constitution, even though this power isn't expressly explained in the Constitution.

Judicial Review

The Court uses its power of judicial review to interpret the Constitution and determine which laws keep with the Constitution. For example, imagine that Kentucky did pass that law requiring criminal defendants to pay for their own criminal trials. Who will tell Kentucky that they can't do this? The federal court will review the law and interpret the Constitution to determine if Kentucky's law goes against Constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court established the duty of judicial review in 1803 through the case of Marbury v. Madison. In the Marbury case, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that 'A law repugnant to the Constitution is void.' This is simply a description of the Supremacy Clause. But this famous case went on to establish the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress that are determined to be in conflict with the Constitution. In effect, the Supreme Court declared itself the final arbitrator in determining what can, and can't, be law.

The idea of judicial review wasn't new. The practice had already been used by the individual states to strike down state laws that conflicted with state constitutions. This power was assumed to exist prior to Marbury v. Madison, but because judicial review isn't directly addressed in the Constitution, the Marbury case served to formally announce the rule for the first time.

Marbury v. Madison

Let's take a closer look at the Marbury v. Madison case to explore how the Supreme Court uses judicial review.

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