Portrait of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, by Henry Inman in 1831. Image online, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
[A]n act of the legislature,
repugnant to the constitution,
But consider this: Nowhere in the American Constitution do "We the People" expressly give the Supreme Court the right to declare a law unconstitutional. Nowhere in the founding document of American government is the high court explicitly vested with the power to overturn laws passed by the people’s representatives.
That significant power was formally created by the court itself in 1803. What the public takes for granted today was officially birthed when John Marshall became the country’s fourth Chief Justice.
To get a sense of the environment in which John Marshall lived, and to understand what may have caused him to issue the opinion many scholars believe is the Supreme Court’s most important, we need to step back in time. Let’s virtually visit late 18th/early 19th century America.
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