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Federalist Papers

Federalist, No. 78, And The Power Of The Judiciary

"We proceed now to an examination of thejudiciary department of the proposed government." So begins Federalist, no. 78, the first of six essays by ALEXANDER HAMILTON on the role of the judiciary in the government established by the U.S. Constitution.

Hamilton made two principal points in the essay. First, he argued for the independence of the judiciary from the other two branches of government, the executive and the legislative. In presenting a case for the judiciary, he reached his second major conclusion: that the judiciary must be empowered to strike down laws passed by Congress that it deems "contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution."

In presenting his argument for the independence of the judiciary, Hamilton claimed that it was by far the weakest of the three branches. It did not, he said, have the "sword" of the executive, who is commander in chief of the nation's armed forces, nor the "purse" of the legislature, which approves all the tax and spending measures of the national government. It had, according to Hamilton, "neither FORCE nor WILL but merely judgment."

As a result of this weakness, the U.S. Constitution protects the judiciary from the other two branches by what Hamilton called "permanency in office." Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution declares, "Judges … shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." By making the tenure of federal judges permanent and not temporary, Hamilton argued, the Constitution ensures that judges will not be changed according to the interests or whims of another branch of government. According to Hamilton, permanent tenure also recognizes the complexity of the law in a free society. Few people, he believed, will have the knowledge and the integrity to judge the law, and those deemed adequate to the office must be retained rather than replaced.

The judiciary must also be independent, according to Hamilton, so that it may fulfill its main purpose in a constitutional government: the protection of the "particular rights or privileges" of the people as set forth by the Constitution. Here, Hamilton made his second major point. To protect those rights, he proclaimed, the judiciary must be given the power of JUDICIAL REVIEW to declare as null and void laws that it deems unconstitutional.

Critics of the Constitution claimed that judicial review gave the judiciary power superior to that of the legislative branch. Hamilton responded to them in Federalist, no. 78, by arguing that both branches are inferior to the power of the people and that the judiciary's role is to ensure that the legislature remains a "servant" of the Constitution and the people who created it, not a "master":

There is no position which depends on clearer principles than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this would be to affirm that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves.

Although judicial review is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court established the legitimacy of the concept when it struck down an act of Congress in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60. The courts had embraced judicial review by the twentieth century, leading some critics to maintain that the overly active use of judicial review had given the courts too much power. Whether or not the courts have demonstrated "judicial activism" by striking down legislation, Hamilton was correct in foreseeing that the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts would protect the rights defined by the people in their Constitution.


Marbury v. Madison; Marshall, John.

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