Judicial review

Judicial review is a type of court proceeding in which a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body.

In other words, judicial reviews are a challenge to the way in which a decision has been made, rather than the rights and wrongs of the conclusion reached.

It is not really concerned with the conclusions of that process and whether those were ‘right’, as long as the right procedures have been followed. The court will not substitute what it thinks is the ‘correct’ decision.

This may mean that the public body will be able to make the same decision again, so long as it does so in a lawful way.

If you want to argue that a decision was incorrect, judicial review may not be best for you. There are alternative remedies, such as appealing against the decision to a higher court.

Examples of the types of decision which may fall within the range of judicial review include:

  • Decisions of local authorities in the exercise of their duties to provide various welfare benefits and special education for children in need of such education;
  • Certain decisions of the immigration authorities and the Immigration and Asylum Chamber;
  • Decisions of regulatory bodies;
  • Decisions relating to prisoner’s rights.
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court case judicial review

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  • The Power of Judicial Review

Article III of the U.S. Constitution describes the powers and duties of the judicial branch.  Nowhere does it mention the power of the courts to review actions of the other two branches, and possibly declare these actions unconstitutional.  This power, called Judicial Review , was established by the landmark decision in Marbury v. Madison , 1803.

“ It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is…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 Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty .” Chief Justice Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, 1803  
  • Facts about Judicial Review
  • Possible Subjects of Judicial Review
  • No law or action can contradict the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.
  • The court can only review a law that is brought before it through a law suit.
  • State courts also have the power to review state laws or actions based upon their state constitutions.
  • Legislative actions (laws made by congress)
  • Executive actions (treaties, executive orders issued by the president, or regulations issued by a government agency)
  • State and local laws

Case Studies

Marbury v. madison , 1803.

  • Case History

When President John Adams did not win a second term in the 1801 election, he used the final days of his presidency to make a large number of political appointments.  When the new president (Thomas Jefferson) took office, he told his Secretary of State (James Madison), not to deliver the official paperwork to the government officials who had been appointed by Adams.  Thus the government officials, including William Marbury, were denied their new jobs.  William Marbury petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus , to force Madison to deliver the commission.

Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (a law written by Congress), gave the Supreme Court the authority to issue writs of mandamus to settle disputes such as the one described here.  This power to force actions of government officials went above and beyond anything mentioned in Article III of the Constitution.

Therefore, in addition to deciding whether or not William Marbury had a right to his job, the U.S. Supreme Court also had to decide whether or not Section 13 of the Judiciary Act was in violation of the Constitution (the birth of Judicial Review ).

This case did not reach the U.S. Supreme Court the way most issues do.  Most cases reach the Supreme Court as the court of last resort, when the Justices are asked to review a decision of a lower court.  In this case, William Marbury petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court directly due to the provision in Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.  Note:  The power to directly accept petitions such as these is not granted to the Supreme Court in the Constitution.

What Do You Think The U.S. Supreme Court Decided?

Though the Justices agreed that William Marbury had a right to his job, they also ruled that issuing the writ of mandamus to force that to happen did not fall under their jurisdiction as stated in the Constitution. The Supreme Court opinion explained that it is within their power and authority to review acts of Congress, such as the Judiciary Act of 1789, to determine whether or not the law is unconstitutional. By declaring Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine of Judicial Review.

The Supreme Court said “ The Constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it. If the (first) part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law .” by author of opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall.

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  • The opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • The official version of the opinion can be found in the U.S. Reports at your local law library. Marbury v. Madison , 5 U.S. 137 (1803)

Ladue v. Gilleo, 1994

In 1990, Margaret Gilleo placed a sign in the yard of her home in Ladue, Missouri. The sign said “Say No to War in the Persian Gulf, Call Congress Now.” The city of Ladue had a law against yard signs, and told Ms. Gilleo to take her signs down. Ms. Gilleo sued the city of Ladue for violating her 1 st Amendment rights.

Was Ladue’s law against signs unconstitutional?

Margaret Gilleo sued the city of Ladue in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The court ruled in her favor and stopped Ladue from enforcing the law. Ladue appealed the decision, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals also found in Ms. Gilleo’s favor. The city of Ladue then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the lower courts. Ladue’s law against yard signs violated the 1 st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 1 st Amendment protects political speech, and banning yard signs takes away the main avenue by which people traditionally express their personal political views. The value of protecting personal political speech is more important than Ladue’s desire to keep the city free of clutter.

The Supreme Court said “ They may not afford the same opportunities for conveying complex ideas as do other media, but residential signs have long been an important and distinct medium of expression .” by author of opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens.

  • The official version of the opinion can be found in the U.S. Reports at your local law library. Ladue v. Gilleo , 512 U.S. 43 (1994)

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 1966

Annie Harper was not allowed to register to vote in Virginia because she wasn’t able to pay the state’s poll tax. Virginia law required voters to pay $1.50 tax to register, with the money collected going to public school funding. Ms. Harper sued the Virginia Board of Elections, claiming the poll tax violated her 14 th Amendment right to equal protection. Note: The 24 th Amendment to the Constitution already banned poll taxes in federal elections, but not in state elections.

Was the Virginia law requiring a tax to vote in a state election unconstitutional?

The U.S. District Court dismissed Ms. Harper’s suit in favor of the Board of Elections. She then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

The Supreme Court declared the Virginia poll tax law unconstitutional. By making it more difficult for poor people to vote, the state was violating the 14 th Amendment guarantee of equal protection. Voting is a fundamental right, and should remain accessible to all citizens. The amount of wealth someone has should have no bearing on their ability to vote freely.

The Supreme Court said “ We conclude that a State violates the …(Constitution).. …whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax …. Wealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned. ” by author of opinion, Justice William O. Douglas

  • The official version of the opinion can be found in the U.S. Reports at your local law library. Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections , 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

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Judicial Review

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When it comes to legal disputes, the courts are the final deciders of what the Constitution means. This authority – known as judicial review – gives the Supreme Court and federal courts the authority to interpret the Constitution.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.

judicial review

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Judicial  review is the idea, fundamental to the U.S. system of government, that the actions of the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to review and possible invalidation by the  judiciary . Judicial review allows the  Supreme Court  to take an active role in ensuring that the other branches of government abide by the  Constitution . 

The text of the Constitution does not contain a specific provision for the power of judicial review. Rather, the power to declare laws unconstitutional has been deemed an implied power, derived from Article III and Article VI of the  U.S. Constitution . Judicial review of the government was established in the landmark decision of  Marbury v. Madison , the first Supreme Court decision to strike down the act of Congress as unconstitutional, with the famous line from Chief Justice John Marshall: "It is emphatically the 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 the rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Court must decide on the operation of each." 

While this case has served as the bedrock for judicial review ever since, courts nevertheless must be careful not to violate the Separation of Powers doctrine when engaging in judicial review. While of course it is the duty of the judiciary to interpret the law and decide which laws violate the Constitution, judges and justices understand that they must not usurp the legislative duty to create the law. While this consideration is often implicit, many judges and justices explicitly rely on it to guide their decision and craft their opinion . This principle is also often at the forefront of many important decisions in administrative law , where judicial officials must carefully strike the right balance between assessing the validity of executive agency actions without deciding what the law is for themselves. 

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team ]

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Judicial review

What is judicial review?

The entrance to the UK Supreme Court.

What is judicial review? 

Judicial review is a kind of court case, in which someone (the “claimant”) challenges the lawfulness of a government decision.  

This can be the decision of a central government department, another government body such as a regulator, a local authority, or certain other bodies when they are performing a public function. 

If the claimant wins, then the government decision can be declared unlawful, or quashed. That will sometimes mean that the decision has to be made again. Alternatively, the court can order the government to do or not do something. 

The law which applies in cases of this kind is sometimes called “public law” or “administrative law”. In very important cases which concern fundamental rights or the relationships between democratic institutions, it is sometimes called “constitutional law”. 

On what grounds can a government decision be overturned by the courts? 

There are three main grounds of judicial review: illegality, procedural unfairness, and irrationality.  

A decision can be overturned on the ground of illegality if the decision-maker did not have the legal power to make that decision, for instance because Parliament gave them less discretion than they thought. 

A decision can be overturned on the ground of procedural unfairness if the process leading up to the decision was improper. This might, for instance, be because a decision-maker who is supposed to be impartial was biased. Or it might be because a decision-maker who is supposed to give someone the chance to make representations before deciding on their case failed to do so. 

A decision can be overturned on the ground of irrationality if it is so unreasonable that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have made it. This is a very high bar to get over, and it is rare for the courts to grant judicial review on this basis.  

In addition, a decision can be overturned if a public authority has acted in a way which is incompatible with human rights that are given effect by the Human Rights Act 1998. There is one exception to this, though: if the public authority is merely doing what parliament told it to do, then it is not acting unlawfully even if it does act incompatibly with one of those rights. 

A judge cannot quash or declare unlawful a government decision merely on the basis that the judge would have made a different decision, or that the decision was wrong.  

Can the courts overturn legislation in judicial review cases? 

The courts cannot overturn or quash primary legislation passed by parliament. This is because, in the UK constitution, parliament is sovereign. 

The courts can overturn secondary legislation, made by ministers, on the normal grounds of judicial review.  

How many judicial review cases are there, and how many are successful? 

In 2018, some 3,597 claims for judicial review were lodged 4 Ministry of Justice, Civil justice stats table,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/806900/civil-Justice-stats-main-tables-Jan-Mar_2019.x…  (commenced) in the High Court. However, most cases do not get very far, because a claimant must convince the court that they have an “arguable” case in order to be granted permission to proceed to a full hearing.  

Only 184 cases, or about 5% of total cases commenced, reached a full oral hearing in 2018. The rest were mostly refused permission to proceed, withdrawn, or resolved out of court. 

Of the cases that did proceed to a full hearing, the government body under challenge won 50% and lost 40%. The other cases were mostly withdrawn or have not yet reached a conclusion. 

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