Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—September 29

1958—In a joint opinion of all nine justices in Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court for the first time asserts the myth of judicial supremacy. The case concerns an application by Little Rock, Arkansas, school authorities to suspend for 2-1/2 years the operation of the school board’s court-approved desegregation program. After stating that “[w]hat has been said, in light of the facts developed, is enough to dispose of this case” (by denying the school board’s application), the Supreme Court nonetheless proceeds to purport to “recall some basic constitutional propositions which are settled doctrine.” Among these supposedly basic propositions are the false assertions that the Court’s 1803 ruling in Marbury v. Madison “declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution” and that “that principle has ever since been respected by this Court and the Country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system.”

Properly understood, Marbury stands at most for the limited proposition that the courts, in exercising their judicial function, may review the constitutionality of statutes that they are asked to apply. As leading liberal scholar Laurence Tribe has acknowledged, Marbury in no way establishes that the federal judiciary in general—or the Supreme Court in particular—is supreme over the President and Congress in determining what the Constitution means: “presidents have never taken so wholly juricentric … a view of the constitutional universe—a view that certainly isn’t implied by the power of judicial review as recognized in Marbury v. Madison.”

Contrast Cooper’s brazen dictum with these words from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“[T]he candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, . . . the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

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