Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Marbury v. Madison is significant because it is the first case which really asserted the Court's power of Judicial Review. The case came out of a struggle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian-Republicans. After Thomas Jefferson was elected president, but before he was actually sworn into office the current president, John Adams and the Federalist congress created a number of new judgeships and appointed all Federalists in order to try and balance out the Jeffersonians once they took over. John Marshall who had just been appointed chief justice of the supreme court was still continuing his old job as secretary of state and so responsible for delivering all the commissions for the new judges. When his term as Secretary of State expired he still had seventeen undelivered ommissions that he left for his successor James Madison. Madison under Jefferson's orders refused to deliver the commissions.

William Marbury, one of the appointees whose commission was not delivered went to the Supreme Court seeking for a writ of mandamus (a court order that would force a government official to do their job) so Madison would have to give him his commission. Marbury claimed the Court had authority to issue such a writ under Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Of course having the Supreme Court address this case was a political mess. Marshall, now Chief Justice of the Court, was the one who had failed to deliver the commission in the first place, and so it would seem likely that he'd use his court seat to rectify this error. The problem was that if the Court ordered Marbury's commission than then Jefferson would likely have refused to carry out the writ, and so cut out the authority of the Court (which had no means to enforce its rulings). The same if it refused to issue the writ, it would appear to have no authority of the executive branch at all. In his opinion, issued on February 24, 1803, Marshall not only diffused the political situation by giving Jefferson no way to retaliate, but also established the Court's power of Judicial Review by for the first time partially over turning an act of Congress. The Court's decision was unanimous.

Summery of Chief Justice Marshall's opinion:

Chief Justice Marshall framed the issue before the court in terms of three questions:

  1. Does Marbury have a right to his commission?
  2. If so, can the legal system offer a remedy for his violated rights?
  3. Is that remedy a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court?
First even though the commission was not delivered the appointment still stands since the key part of an appointment is having the President sign it and the Secretary of State seal it. Since these two conditions were met, Marbury was appointment is valid and withholding the commission is a violation.

Second Marshall argues that Marbury does have a right to demand his rights be upheld, since the concept of civil liberties requires that an individual can have his or her rights protected by the law.

Finally Marshall addresses whether Marbury is entitled to the specific remedy he seeks. Marshall agrees that a writ of mandamus should be issued, but argues that the Supreme Court should not be the body to issue it.

Marshall's argument is that the piece of legislation, the Judiciary Act of 1789, that granted the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus in cases like the one before the court is unconstitutional. The problem is that the constitution only gives the Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction in a few specific cases, and so the court should only act in cases of appellant jurisdiction.

Marshall claims the congress had no right to give the court such a power under the constitution. Moreover the Court has the right to strike down the law since otherwise there would be no way to separate the higher law of the constitution from ordinary legislative law. Marshall is arguing for Judicial Supremacy rather than Legislative Supremacy. The court loses the right to issue writs of mandamus, but gains the power to over turn acts of congress.

This case is interesting both because it divined the powers of the Supreme Court, but also by how Marshall framed his decision. Usually courts address the question of jurisdiction first and then only if they find they have jurisdiction do they rule on the facts or matters of law in question. In this case Marshall gave a ruling of fact, then at the end suddenly decided that the court had no authority to act in the case.

Sources: Volume I: Constitiution Law and Politics, David M. O'Brien. 1991

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