What did Thomas Jefferson say about judicial review?

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Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed the doctrine of judicial review, and feared it would lead to "judicial despotism," an opinion he voiced often.

Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams (wife of former President John Adams) in 1804:

"The Constitution... meant that its coordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch."

to Spencer Roane in 1819:

"In denying the right [the Supreme Court usurps] of exclusively explaining the Constitution, I go further than [others] do, if I understand rightly [this] quotation from the Federalist of an opinion that 'the judiciary is the last resort in relation to the other departments of the government, but not in relation to the rights of the parties to the compact under which the judiciary is derived.' If this opinion be sound, then indeed is our Constitution a complete felo de se[act of suicide]. For intending to establish three departments, coordinate and independent, that they might check and balance one another, it has given, according to this opinion, to one of them alone the right to prescribe rules for the government of the others, and to that one, too, which is unelected by and independent of the nation. For experience has already shown that the impeachment it has provided is not even a scare-crow... The Constitution on this hypothesis is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please."

to William C. Jarvis in 1820:

"To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have with others the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. Their maxim is boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem [good justice is broad jurisdiction], and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves."

and to Edward Livingstone in 1825:

"This member of the Government was at first considered as the most harmless and helpless of all its organs. But it has proved that the power of declaring what the law is, ad libitum, by sapping and mining slyly and without alarm the foundations of the Constitution, can do what open force would not dare to attempt."


All of these comments were made during Chief Justice John Marshall's tenure (1803-1835) on the Supreme Court. Marshall and Jefferson were distant cousins who intensely disliked each other, although there is little documentation of public conflict between the two.

Jefferson's opposition to judicial review may seem odd in light of the Marshall Court's rulings, which often asserted the federal government's rights over states' rights under various constitutional provisions, including the Supremacy Clause and the Interstate Commerce Clause, which benefited Jefferson's administration. It is important to note, however, that Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, had a radically different political philosophy from Marshall, a Federalist. Jefferson favored a less powerful central government and supported state sovereignty and individual liberties, while Marshall believed in a strong central government.
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