Judicial Powers: Judicial Review, Case or Controversy

Explore the significance of judicial review and the case or controversy requirement in the American legal system through key cases, constitutional provisions, and historical developments in this comprehensive guide.


The judicial branch of the United States government holds significant power in interpreting the law and ensuring justice. Among its most critical functions are judicial review and the handling of cases or controversies. This article explores these concepts in depth, providing a comprehensive guide to their origins, applications, and implications within the American legal system.

Judicial Review

Definition and Origin

Judicial review is the power of the courts to examine the actions of the legislative and executive branches and determine whether such actions are consistent with the Constitution. This principle was established in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), where Chief Justice John Marshall asserted the authority of the judiciary to review and nullify government actions that violate the Constitution.

Key Case: Marbury v. Madison

  • Source: National Archives
  • Summary: In this case, the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional for the first time, establishing the principle of judicial review.

Constitutional Basis

The authority for judicial review is not explicitly stated in the Constitution but is inferred from Article III, which outlines the judicial power of the United States. The power is derived from the judiciary's role in interpreting the law and ensuring that no law or executive action contravenes the Constitution.

Article III, Section 2

  • Source: Constitution Annotated
  • Summary: This section outlines the scope of judicial power, including the types of cases the federal judiciary can hear.

Scope and Limitations

Judicial review applies to federal and state laws, executive actions, and administrative regulations. However, the judiciary cannot initiate review; it must wait for a case or controversy to be brought before it. This ensures that the courts do not overstep their bounds and only act when necessary to resolve actual disputes.

Relevant Statute: 42 USC 7192

  • Source: U.S. Code
  • Summary: This statute outlines the procedures for judicial review of certain administrative actions.

Case or Controversy Requirement


The "case or controversy" requirement is a constitutional limitation on the judicial power of the United States. It ensures that federal courts only adjudicate actual disputes between adverse parties, rather than hypothetical questions or advisory opinions.

Article III, Section 2

  • Source: Constitution Annotated
  • Summary: This section specifies that the judicial power extends to "cases" and "controversies," thereby limiting the types of matters federal courts can hear.

Justiciability Doctrines

Several doctrines have been developed to interpret the case or controversy requirement, including standing, ripeness, mootness, and the political question doctrine.


  • Definition: Standing requires that a party bringing a lawsuit has a sufficient connection to and harm from the law or action challenged.
  • Key Case: Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992)
    • Summary: The Supreme Court held that plaintiffs must demonstrate an injury in fact, causation, and redressability to establish standing.


  • Definition: Ripeness prevents courts from hearing cases that are premature, ensuring that a dispute has fully developed before judicial intervention.
  • Key Case: Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner (1967)
    • Summary: The Court established criteria for determining whether a case is ripe for review.


  • Definition: Mootness requires that an actual controversy exists at all stages of litigation. If circumstances change such that the issue is no longer live, the case becomes moot.
  • Key Case: DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974)
    • Summary: The Court dismissed the case as moot because the plaintiff had already received the relief sought.

Political Question Doctrine

  • Definition: This doctrine holds that certain issues are more appropriately addressed by the political branches rather than the judiciary.
  • Key Case: Baker v. Carr (1962)
    • Summary: The Court outlined factors for identifying political questions that are non-justiciable.

Historical Development

Early Judicial Review

The concept of judicial review has roots in English common law, but it was firmly established in American jurisprudence with Marbury v. Madison. Early cases often involved conflicts between state and federal laws, with the Supreme Court asserting its authority to resolve such disputes.

Expansion and Controversy

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the scope of judicial review expanded, with the courts increasingly scrutinizing legislative and executive actions. This expansion was not without controversy, as critics argued that it gave unelected judges too much power over democratic processes.

Key Case: Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

  • Source: Supreme Court Landmarks
  • Summary: The Supreme Court used judicial review to strike down racial segregation in public schools, demonstrating the power of the judiciary to effect social change.

Modern Applications

In recent decades, judicial review has continued to play a crucial role in American governance, with courts addressing issues ranging from civil rights to administrative law. The judiciary's ability to interpret the Constitution remains a vital check on the other branches of government.

Impact on American Law and Society

Ensuring Constitutional Compliance

Judicial review ensures that all branches of government adhere to the Constitution, protecting individual rights and maintaining the rule of law. By invalidating unconstitutional actions, the judiciary upholds the foundational principles of American democracy.

Balancing Powers

The case or controversy requirement and justiciability doctrines help maintain a balance of power among the branches of government. By limiting judicial intervention to actual disputes, these doctrines prevent the courts from overstepping their constitutional role.

Influencing Public Policy

Through landmark decisions, the judiciary has significantly influenced public policy and societal norms. Cases like Roe v. Wade (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) have shaped national debates and legislative actions on issues such as reproductive rights and marriage equality.


Judicial review and the case or controversy requirement are fundamental aspects of the American legal system. They ensure that the judiciary can effectively interpret the Constitution while maintaining a balance of power among the branches of government. By understanding these principles, we gain insight into the critical role of the judiciary in safeguarding democracy and justice.


  1. Marbury v. Madison - National Archives
  2. Article III, Section 2 - Constitution Annotated
  3. 42 USC 7192 - U.S. Code
  4. Supreme Court Landmarks - U.S. Courts
  5. The Judicial Branch - The White House
  6. Court Role and Structure - U.S. Courts

This article provides a detailed exploration of judicial review and the case or controversy requirement, highlighting their significance in the American legal system. By examining key cases, constitutional provisions, and historical developments, we gain a comprehensive understanding of these essential judicial powers.

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