What Is Judicial Review?

Sculpture of the Scales of Justice
The Scales of Justice. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News

Judicial Review is the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to review laws and actions from Congress and the President to determine whether they are constitutional. This is part of the checks and balances that the three branches of the federal government use in order to limit each other and ensure a balance of power.

Key Takeaways: Judicial Review

  • Judicial review is the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether a law or decision by the legislative or executive branches of federal government, or any court or agency of the state governments is constitutional.
  • Judicial review is a key to the doctrine of balance of power based on a system of “checks and balances” between the three branches of the federal government.
  • The power of judicial review was established in the 1803 Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison

Judicial review is the fundamental principle of the US system of federal government that all actions of the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to review and possible invalidation by the judiciary branch. In applying the doctrine of judicial review, the U.S. Supreme Court plays a role in ensuring that the other branches of government abide by the U.S. Constitution. In this manner, judicial review is a vital element in the separation of powers between the three branches of government.

Judicial review was established in the landmark Supreme Court decision of Marbury v. Madison, with the famous line from Chief Justice John Marshall: “It is emphatically the 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 the rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Court must decide on the operation of each.”

Marbury vs. Madison and Judicial Review

The power of the Supreme Court to declare an act of the legislative or executive branches to be in violation of the Constitution through judicial review is not found in the text of the Constitution itself. Instead, the Court itself established the doctrine in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison.

On February 13, 1801, outgoing Federalist President John Adams signed the Judiciary Act of 1801, restructuring the U.S. federal court system. As one of his last acts before leaving office, Adams appointed 16 mostly Federalist-leaning judges to preside over new federal district courts created by the Judiciary Act.

However, a thorny issue arose when new Anti-Federalist President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison refused to deliver official commissions to the judges Adams had appointed. One of these blocked “Midnight Judges,” William Marbury, appealed Madison’s action to the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the commission be delivered based on the Judiciary Act of 1789. However, John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ruled that the portion of the Judiciary Act of 1789 allowing for writs of mandamus was unconstitutional.

This ruling established the precedent of judicial branch of the government to declare a law unconstitutional. This decision was a key in helping to place the judicial branch on a more even footing with the legislative and the executive branches.

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department [the judicial branch] 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.” — Chief Justice John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, 1803

Expansion of Judicial Review

Over the years, the US Supreme Court has made a number of rulings that have struck down laws and executive actions as unconstitutional. In fact, they have been able to expand their powers of judicial review.

For example, in the 1821 case of Cohens v. Virginia, the Supreme Court expanded its power of constitutional review to include the decisions of state criminal courts.

In Cooper v. Aaron in 1958, the Supreme Court expanded the power so that it could deem any action of any branch of a state's government to be unconstitutional.

Examples of Judicial Review in Practice

Over the decades, the Supreme Court has exercised its power of judicial review in overturning hundreds of lower court cases. The following are just a few examples of such landmark cases:

Roe v. Wade (1973): The Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting abortion were unconstitutional. The Court held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s ruling affected the laws of 46 states. In a larger sense, Roe v. Wade confirmed that the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction extended to cases affecting women’s reproductive rights, such as contraception.

Loving v. Virginia (1967): State laws prohibiting interracial marriage were struck down. In its unanimous decision, the Court held that distinctions drawn in such laws were generally “odious to a free people” and were subject to “the most rigid scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Court found that the Virginia law in question had no purpose other than “invidious racial discrimination.”

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010): In a decision that remains controversial today, the Supreme Court ruled laws restricting spending by corporations on federal election advertising unconstitutional. In the decision, an ideologically divided 5-to-4 majority of justices held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of political advertisements in candidate elections cannot be limited.

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): Again wading into controversy-swollen waters, the Supreme Court found state laws banning same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. By a 5-to-4 vote, the Court held that the Due Process of Law Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to marry as a fundamental liberty and that the protection applies to same-sex couples in the same way it applies to opposite-sex couples. In addition, the Court held that while the First Amendment protects the rights of religious organizations to adhere to their principles, it does not allow states to deny same-sex couples the right to marry on the same terms as those for opposite-sex couples.

Updated by Robert Longley