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May the Supreme Court Declare Actions Unconstitutional?

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The oral argument of two combined cases (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius) before the Supreme Court concerning the "Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010" focuses national attention on the powers possessed by the Supreme Court. Where does the Supreme Court obtain the power to declare actions by the other branches of government unconstitutional?

Article III Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states; "the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Noteworthy is the fact that Congress creates all federal courts except the Supreme Court. Article III Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution provides a broad grant of judicial powers but does not expressly state that the Supreme Court may declare actions unconstitutional, hence unenforceable.

In fact, the early Supreme Court did not have the prestige that the modern court enjoys. The Eleventh Amendment ratified in 1795 overturned a 1793 Supreme Court decision addressing state sovereign immunity (Chisholm v. Georgia). However, the landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison, in 1803 was to dramatically change the role of the Court.

In Marbury v. Madison Justice Marshall wrote:

"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is... .If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each. So, if a law be in opposition to the constitution ... the court must determine which of these conflicting rules govern the case. This is the very essence of judicial duty. If, the courts are to regard the constitution, and the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply."

In other words, the Supreme Court may declare legislation unconstitutional.

Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt are three notable presidents who have been critical of this asserted power. Nevertheless the Supreme Court's power to decide constitutionality is a basic feature of U.S. law. As recently as March 20, Marbury v. Madison was cited by Justices Scalia and Thomas (Martinez v. Ryan). It is unlikely to be overturned without a major realignment of the federal government. Indeed many wondered if President Nixon would create a crisis by ignoring the Supreme Court's order to turn over subpoenaed recordings (United States v. Nixon). He obeyed the Court.

Consequently under current understanding, the two ways to reverse the Supreme Court are to amend the Constitution or persuade the Court itself to change its decision. Over many years numerous proposals to curb the power of the Supreme Court have included allowing a super-majority vote of Congress to overturn a decision, limiting the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, electing justices, limiting their terms in office, or impeaching justices. President Roosevelt's proposal to increase the number of Supreme Court justices died after the Supreme Court stopped declaring New Deal legislation unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court's power to declare actions unconstitutional is frequently perceived as desirable or undesirable depending upon reactions to a given ruling. Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the current health care cases will be controversial. The resulting commentary concerning the Supreme Court's powers will doubtless sound familiar. What does the classic statement, rule of law and not men, mean when it comes to constitutional issues?