The Creation of the Federal Courts

The Constitution defines the structure and functions of the legislative (Congressional) branch of the government. It clearly (although less thoroughly) addresses the responsibilities and powers of the president.

It treats the judicial branch almost as an afterthought. Article III creates only one court (the Supreme Court), allows judges to serve for life and to receive compensation, broadly outlines original and appellate jurisdiction, and outlines the trial procedure for and limitations of congressional power against those accused of treason. The Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to try cases between states, involving ambassadors, and related to treaties.

The power of judicial review can be traced to the famous 1803 court case of Marbury v. Madison. In this case following the Presidential election of 1800, Chief Justice John Marshall declared a Congressional law called the writ of mandamus unconstitutional, claiming that Congress had passed a law "repugnant to the Constitution." He declared that Article III did not grant the judicial branch the power of the writ of mandamus.

No one seemed to understand the grand implications of what Marshall had done: he had created the power of judicial review. This established the precedent that only the federal courts could interpret the Constitution. This power has given federal judges the final word in settling virtually every major issue that has challenged the government in American history.

Source: The Creation of the Federal Courts
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