Fundamental Role Of Federal Courts Is To Say What The Law Is

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. 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 constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.”  With these words in the famous Marbury v. Madison case, Chief Justice John Marshall explained early in our history the essence of the fundamental role of the federal courts in American government.  In short, that role is to “expound and interpret” the law, including the Constitution, to resolve specific disputes.

Chief Justice Marshall was not saying that the other two branches of the federal government, the legislative and executive branches, have no role in interpreting the Constitution.  Obviously, they do and must have a role.  Both branches must follow the Constitution.  They cannot do so without an effort to interpret it.  In drafting laws, Congress must respect what the Constitution says, and that entails a degree of interpretation.  In executing the laws, the President must stay within the bounds of the Constitution.  That also entails interpreting the meaning of the Constitution.

Inevitably, however, conflicts will arise when the legislative and executive branches differ in their interpretations.  For example, Congress may pass a law it thinks is constitutional, but the President may disagree and refuse to enforce it. Or the President may think the executive branch has the power to take certain actions, but Congress may disagree.  The nation could not function without a mechanism to resolve such deadlocks between branches over the legitimacy of their actions. 

So, whose interpretation of the Constitution prevails?  Congress, being an elected body, will always be dependent on public opinion.  If Congress passes a law that is popular with the people, it is unlikely to then turn around and agree the law it just passed is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.  It is also proper for the executive branch to be responsive to the desires of the majority. 

Both of these branches are designed to be influenced by public opinion, but public opinion can change frequently.  

This leaves the judicial branch.  The judicial branch is not an elected body and thus is insulated from the direct pressure of popular opinion.  Federal judges have life tenure, so they can focus on the Constitution and not the momentary desires of the majority of the public.  Judges owe their allegiance strictly to the Constitution and laws, rather than any particular segment of the population.  And because they have life tenure, they do not turn over in office as frequently as the members of the other branches.  Thus, they can take a longer-term view of matters and look beyond the fracas of the moment.  This, by design, helps ensure stability in the law and uniformity and consistency in constitutional interpretation.  

Moreover, interpreting statutes and regulations is what judges do routinely in deciding legal disputes and instructing juries on the law to apply during civil and criminal trials.  Interpreting the Constitution fits closely with these duties and within these skill sets.  

Through the federal courts’ expounding and interpreting the law, suffocating conflicts between the branches of the federal government are avoided.  The federal government and our society also have a definitive source of constitutional interpretation to follow.  The wisdom of Chief Justice Marshall still serves us well.  

* * *

Curtis L. Collier
United States District Judge
Chair, Eastern District of Tennessee Civics and Outreach Committee

Carrie Brown Stefaniak
Law Clerk to the Honorable Curtis L. Collier
Past President, Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association

Kristen A. Dupard
Law Clerk to the Honorable Curtis L. Collier


Academic Achievement Tied To Funding?

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Marie Mott's Plan For Small Business And Skilled Trades In District 8


Now that's funny. Memphis schools spent $11,250 per student, which is third in the state. Yet they are ranked #103 in the state academic rankings. Metro Nashville spends $11,012 per student which ... (click for more)

Let’s see if I have this right. Taxpayers are to foot the bill to the tune of $80 million for a new baseball stadium that will be designed to hold 6,000 people. We must not plan on a great deal ... (click for more)

District 8 isn’t on the same playing field as the rest of Chattanooga. We’ve been left behind and overlooked for millions in support and economic investment. Everyone deserves access to career ... (click for more)



Opinion

Academic Achievement Tied To Funding?

Now that's funny. Memphis schools spent $11,250 per student, which is third in the state. Yet they are ranked #103 in the state academic rankings. Metro Nashville spends $11,012 per student which is fourth in the state, yet they are ranked #80 . When I studied statistical analysis at UT 55 years ago that was known as an inverse correlation. Who do the educated populace vote ... (click for more)

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

Let’s see if I have this right. Taxpayers are to foot the bill to the tune of $80 million for a new baseball stadium that will be designed to hold 6,000 people. We must not plan on a great deal of attendance. Research reveals that during pre-pandemic in 2019, the average attendance was 3,948. Furthermore, under the current proposal if you attend a game, you must pay to park. So, ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Hixson Couple Facing First-Degree Murder Charges In Starving Death Of Their Adult Son

A Hixson couple has been charged with murder in the death of their mentally handicapped son, who died from severe malnutrition and dehydration. John Dennis Hoover and Jacqueline Hoover are charged with first-degree murder and wilful abuse or neglect of an impaired adult. Chattanooga Police responded to the 6700 block of Ardis Lane in Hixson on June 23. They were told by ... (click for more)

15-Year-Old Was Left With Severe Brain Injuries After Downtown Shooting In Which 6 Were Shot

Fifteen-year-old Reagan Paris is still languishing in a local hospital after she was one of six youths shot in downtown Chattanooga on May 28, her family said. A GoFundMe page has been set up for Reagan. The page says, "15-year-old Reagan was enjoying her day with friends and family. While visiting the downtown area she was sadly caught in cross fire and tragically shot ... (click for more)

Sports

Lookouts Rally Twice To Beat Birmingham

It’s been a tough week for the Chattanooga Lookouts, but it all ended on a positive note with a come-from-behind victory over the Birmingham Barons Sunday night at AT&T Field. The Lookouts had to come back twice against the Barons after the division leaders scored five unearned runs in the fourth inning for a 6-5 lead after leading 1-0 in the first. It wasn’t the prettiest ... (click for more)

CFC Wins 2-1 Over Visiting Syracuse Pulse

Chattanooga Football Club returned to Finley Stadium on Saturday night, looking to put on a show for the holiday weekend. More importantly, the CFC Men wanted to extend their unbeaten streak to eight and expand their lead at the top of the table. They would take care of both. CFC hosted Syracuse Pulse for the second time in three weeks. The last contest ended in a 3-0 win for ... (click for more)