Colonial Virginia: The Intellectual Incubator of Judicial Review

Aimonetti, Justin, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Nicoletti, Cynthia, University of Virginia School of Law

What is the historical origin of judicial review in the United States? Although scholars have acknowledged that British imperial “disallowance” of colonial law was an influential antecedent, the extant historical scholarship devoted to the mechanics of disallowance is sparse. This limited exploration is surprising. Not unlike modern judicial review, the guiding question imperial overseers considered when disallowing colonial legislation was whether it was ‘repugnant’ to the laws of England. In response, this Note’s first contribution is to explain the process by which the so-called repugnancy principle was enforced against inferior colonial law. Even fewer scholars have attempted to connect the ultimate repugnancy assessment to the historical context surrounding disallowed colonial laws. This Note’s second contribution is thus to augment existing literature by exploring colonial Virginia’s specific experience under imperial supervision.

Among the scholars that have explored the connection between colonial disallowance and the origins of judicial review, some have documented the link between imperial legislative review of colonial legislation and James Madison’s proposed constitutional solution to the problem of unrestrained state legislatures in the aftermath of independence. What remains to be explored, however, is how Madison explicitly drew on the history of imperial review of colonial Virginia’s laws as he argued at the Constitutional Convention for a federal power to “negative” state laws. Accordingly, this Note’s third contribution is to reveal that the historical practice of imperial review in Madison’s native Virginia animated his proposed solution to check the unrestrained popular will of state legislators. Although his proposed solution was ultimately rejected at the Convention, that rejection was conditioned on the judiciary possessing the power of judicial review. By exposing this hidden link, this Note demonstrates that colonial Virginia rightly may be regarded as the intellectual incubator of judicial review.

MA (Master of Arts)
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