Separation of Powers: Marbury v. Madison, Schechter Poultry Corp.


Since America’s first wobbly, unsure steps forward as a nation, the concept of separation of powers has played a pivotal role in defining the politics and structure of the U.S. Government. The rationale behind the separation of powers is simple. With only one or two branches of government, it would be relatively easy for one branch, or even one man, to seize power. A system of checks and balances as well as a 3-branch government ensures that no one political entity can establish totalitarian-esque control.

Marbury v. Madison

There have been several incidents involving the separation of powers that have reached the Supreme Court. The Marbury v. Madison court case and the Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United State Supreme Court cases are probably two of the most influential events in the history of the federal courts.

John Adams, a Federalist, made several so – called midnight appointments in order to bring as many high level government positions as possible under the control of the Federalists. This included the Federal Justice of the Peace office, which was given to William Marbury. However, Anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson assumed the Presidency before the appointment was officially in effect and a legal battle ensued over whether Marbury legally held the position.

Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States

Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States dealt with the limits of the president’s power. Part of Roosevelt’s New Deal economic plan was the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA). This legislation allowed the president to set “codes of fair competition” that regulated parts of interstate trade and commerce.

The Schechter Poultry Corporation was accused of violating the “live poultry code” of fair competition and of failing to respect minimum wage and hour stipulations as well as a myriad of other esoteric chicken-related laws. However, the constitutionality of the NIRA and the codes of fair competition were very much in question.

Results of Marbury v. Madison

The decision of the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison has had an unequivocal impact on American political policies and proceedings. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law Marbury cited (The Judiciary Act of 1789) while requesting a writ of mandamus was in direct conflict with the constitution. Furthermore, they said, the constitution transcends any federal or state law contracting it.

Thus, in an act that seems to be a mockery of checks and balances, the Supreme Court gave itself the power of judicial review; the ability to interpret the nation’s laws. However, judicial review has proven to be essential to maintaining the balance of power in government and is now considered a legitimate part of the unwritten constitution.

Results of Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States

It is impossible to know just how much the resolution of Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States has affected our modern political system. Perhaps if this case had not surfaced we would be living in an authoritarian state right now.

Consider this: the Supreme Court, in unison once again, found the NIRA and the codes of fair competition to be unconstitutional. The declaration of the NIRA as an unconstitutional redistribution of power was important not because it let the SPC off the hook, but because it sent a clear message to FDR and all future presidents that they could not use desperate situations as an excuse to bolster their own power.

Separation of Powers

Although separation of powers is seen as a relatively modern American idea, it actually dates back to the early 1700s and the French Baron de Montesquieu. It is this philosopher and political thinker who developed the 3 branch government system and even gave them their names and basic purposes, Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Yet, it you ask a typical high school student about Montesquieu, he won’t have a clue how to pronounce his name, much less understand the profound influence he had on the framers of our constitution. So next time you’re casting a vote or watching a no bias, no bull political debate, say a silent thanks to the little-known Baron de Montesquieu who is still waiting for a mention in American textbooks.