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Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison 5 US 137 1803 is the seminal case in American law which established the power of the Supreme Court, on constitutional grounds, to invalidate laws enacted by Congress. The case is found in Cranch (the court reporter of decisions) volume one at page 137 (1803). Cranch is the first volume of cases devoted only to Supreme Court cases.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Case
3 The Decision


Marbury is such an important case in American law precisely because it first truly revealed how the judiciary, and in particular, the Supreme Court, works as an equal partner among the three branches of American government. In essence, the Court was able to significantly affect and even alter decisions made by the executive and legislative branches. In this sense, that it is the first to have such an effect, there is little background in American law for it.

The Case

John Adams, the second President of the United States (1797-1801) had appointed William Marbury to a position as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia less than a week before the end of his term. He was one of 42 justices named on 2 March 1801 and confirmed by the Senate on 3 March 1801, Adams's last day in office. Marbury's commission, as well as that of others who were part of the lawsuit, was signed by Adams and, ironically, acting Secretary of State John Marshall; however, the new President, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), treated them as null and void because of a technicality - they had not been delivered by day's end. Shortly thereafter, Marshall, who had been sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States on 4 February 1801 but had continued to act as Secretary of State, swore in Jefferson as President. As the case later developed, Marshall's brother James swore by affidavit of the existence of certain of these commissions, including those that came before his Chief Justice brother.

The court via Marshall held that Marbury had a valid commission, good for five years. The question was whether the law gave him a remedy. The answer to that question was yes, because the refusal to deliver his commission to Marbury violated his right for which there had to be a remedy. The question then shifted to whether Marbury was entitled to that remedy.

In this case, Marbury brought the lawsuit directly in the Supreme Court, under the Judiciary Act of 1789. The requested remedy was an order directed against James Madison, the new Secretary of State and would require him (known as a writ of mandamus) to transmit the commission to Marbury.

The Decision

In analyzing the case, Marshall (and the court) examined the Judiciary Act of 1789, which stated that the Supreme Court could "issue writes of mandamus in any persons holding office under the authority of the United States." The Constitution, the Supreme Court held, confined its original jurisdiction - the ability to hear cases in the first instance - to "all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state be a party. In all other cases the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction."

The Court, on 24 February 1803, in a unanimous, 6-0 decision, held that Congress had no power to alter their original jurisdiction in this way and found unconstitutional the Judiciary Act of 1789. The opinion was particularly brilliant because it invalidated an act of Congress yet avoided a direct confrontation with the President because it did not have jurisdiction over the case and thus could not order the Secretary of State to deliver those commissions.

The case established the court's ability to use the tool of judicial review in finding that a staute of action taken by the government is unconstitutional. There is no doubt that the entire judicial system would be helpless without this fundamental ability, and Justice Marshall, although highly criticized for the forum chosen to establish this invaluable tool, in many ways, assured the continuation of America. A judicial system whose sole function is to apply the law without question is not on the same level as a legislature that can make law that goes virtually unchecked. Justice Marshall realized that without judicial review, the courts have no independence from the remaining two branches of government. With the congress deciding the extent of what was constitutional, the contraints placed on the power of the federal government were self imposed and unenforceable.

Preceded by:Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) List of United States Supreme Court cases Followed by:
Fletcher v. Peck (1810) Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)