Becoming Supreme: The Federal Foundation of Judicial Supremacy

56 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2011

Date Written: September 13, 2011


One of the longstanding questions that bedevils scholars in several disciplines is how judicial power gains traction. What, in particular, explains judicial supremacy? Theories abound, but each is lacking in some way. By looking at the answer to this question in the context of the Supreme Court of the United States, we demonstrate the vital role a federal system can play in both the rise and maintenance of judicial supremacy. In a unitary (nonfederal) system, a judiciary possessing the power of judicial review may well find itself frequently at odds with - and rarely helpful to - the governing regime. In contrast, in a federal system, the judiciary can provide vital support to the central government in suppressing outlier conduct. This “vertical” supremacy - the supremacy of the Supreme Court over state and local governments - ultimately transforms itself into “horizontal” supremacy - the binding effect of judicial pronouncements over the coordinate branches of the national government. This project is theoretical and historical both: it identifies the mechanisms for the transformation from vertical to horizontal supremacy, and recounts how this occurred in the United States.

Suggested Citation

Friedman, Barry and Delaney, Erin F., Becoming Supreme: The Federal Foundation of Judicial Supremacy (September 13, 2011). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 100, No. 2, 2011; NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-61. Available at SSRN:

Barry Friedman (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
Room 317
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-998-6293 (Phone)
212-995-4030 (Fax)

Erin F. Delaney

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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