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The Supreme Court: It’s Origins and Purpose

Checks and balances are a way of ensuring that governments are unable to abuse their power, with power being divided into entirely separate branches. The Founding Fathers, wanting the tyranny that took place in Great Britain to never be repeated, agreed at the Constitutional Convention to establish three branches of the federal government: The Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The problem was that there was the distinct purpose of the Judicial Branch was not elaborated on, and for a time did not have a set role, until the Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison.


Originally, the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” were not used to define the two major political parties in the United States. Instead, the two parties were referred to as the “Democratic-Republicans” (Which were modern day Republicans) and “Federalists” (Which were modern day Democrats.) When Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson was elected to be the third President of the United States, current Federalist incumbent John Adams was quick to appoint several Federalist judges before he left office. Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison was outraged at these undelivered appointments left for him, and refused to officially appoint the judges. One such judge prospective judge, William Marbury, demanded for the Supreme Court to issue a “writ of mandate” which would compel Madison to deliver Marbury’s appointment to him.


The Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, John Marshall was now caught between two undesirable outcomes. While Madison was technically obligated to appoint the judges that John Adams had left for him, there was nothing forcing the Executive Branch to comply with the Judicial’s demands: The Supreme Court had no army; Madison refusing to make the appointments after receiving a Writ of Mandate from the court would only demonstrate that the Judicial Branch was useless, with no power of its own to wield. On the other hand, not issuing the Writ of Mandate to Madison would also prove the Supreme Court unable to enforce the rules and fulfill its purpose.


Luckily for Marshall, he found a third option which would both avoid a refusal from the Executive branch, and showcase the Supreme Court’s power over the other two branches. Marshall deemed the court’s word on this matter to be “null and void”; For the Supreme Court to decide on matters which did not “affect Ambassadors or other public Ministers and Consuls,” the case would first have to be passed up to the Supreme Court after having gone through lower courts. The court rendered its opinion on this matter to be unconstitutional, and declared that they could not make a decision regarding this case. This not only avoided the Judicial branch being humiliated and demonstrated as useless, but also enforced the power of “Judicial Review” for all of the country to see.


The necessity of checks and balances in the early days of our country have only been strengthened in recent years, as corrupt politicians continue to attempt to use their power for their own purposes. The three branches of the US government all have a role to play in upholding the ideals upon which our country was founded on, the prevention of oppression arising at the hands of a tyrannical government, and the idea that nobody, especially those with the most power, is above the law.