Marbury v Madison

Today, the Supreme Court has the power to declare laws unconstitutional, but that was not always the case. In the early days of the nation, the act of judicial review had been previously used only by state courts. Even at the Constitutional Convention, delegates talked about giving the federal courts the power of judicial review. Yet, the idea was not used by the Supreme Court until their decision in Marbury v. Madison in 1803. 

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Table of contents

    This article discusses the events leading up to the Marbury v. Madison case, the case proceedings, the Supreme Court’s opinion as well as the significance of that decision.

    Marbury v. Madison Background

    In the presidential election of 1800, Federalist President John Adams was defeated by Republican Thomas Jefferson. At the time, the Federalists controlled Congress, and they, along with President Adams, passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which gave the president more power over the appointment of judges, established new courts, and increased the number of judge commissions.

    Marbury v. Madison Portrait of John Adams StudySmarterPortrait of John Adams, Mather Brown, Wikimedia Commons. CC-PD-Mark

    Marbury v. Madison Portrait of Thomas Jefferson StudySmarterPortrait of Thomas Jefferson, Jan Arkesteijn, Wikimedia Commons. CC-PD-Mark

    President Adams used the Act to appoint forty-two new justices of the peace and sixteen new circuit court judges in what was his attempt to aggravate incoming president Thomas Jefferson. Before Jefferson took office on March 4, 1801, Adams sent his appointments for confirmation by the Senate and the Senate approved his choices. However, not all of the commissions had been signed and delivered by the Secretary of State when President Jefferson took office. Jefferson ordered the new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the remaining commissions.

    Marbury v Madison, Portrait of William Marbury, StudySmarterWilliam Marbury, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

    William Marbury had been appointed as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia and was to serve a term of five years. Yet, he had not received his commission documents. Marbury, along with Dennis Ramsay, Robert Townsend Hooe, and William Harper, petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus.

    Writ of mandamus is an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering that government official fulfill their duties properly or correct an abuse of discretion. This kind of remedy should only be used in circumstances such as emergencies or issues of public importance.

    Marbury v. Madison Summary

    The United States Supreme Court at the time was led by Chief Justice John Marshall. He was the fourth chief justice of the United States, appointed by President John Adams before Thomas Jefferson began his presidency in 1801. Marshall was a Federalist and was also Jefferson's second cousin once removed. Chief Justice Marshall is considered one of the best chief justices for his contributions to the U.S. government: 1) defining the powers of the judiciary in Marbury v. Madison and 2) interpreting the U.S. Constitution in a way that strengthened the powers of the federal government.

    Marbury v. Madison Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall StudySmarter

    Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall, John B. Martin, Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark

    Marbury v Madison: Proceedings

    The Plaintiffs, through their attorney, asked the Court to rule against Madison on their motion to show cause as to why the Court should not issue a writ of mandamus to compel him to deliver the commissions they were entitled to by law. The Plaintiffs supported their motion with affidavits stating that:

    • Madison had been given notice of their motion;

    • President Adams had nominated the Plaintiffs to the Senate and the Senate had approved their appointment and commission;

    • The Plaintiffs asked Madison to deliver their commissions;

    • The Plaintiffs went to Madison’s office to inquire about the status of their commissions, specifically whether they had been signed and sealed by the Secretary of State;

    • The Plaintiffs were not given sufficient information from Madison or the Department of State;

    • The Plaintiffs asked the Secretary of the Senate to provide certificates of nomination but the Senate refused to give such a certificate.

    The Court summoned Jacob Wagner and Daniel Brent, clerks in the Department of State, to provide evidence. Wagner and Brent objected to being sworn in. They claimed that they could not divulge any details about the Department of State’s business or transactions. The Court ordered that they be sworn in but said that they could tell the Court their objections to any questions being asked.

    The previous Secretary of State, Mr. Lincoln, was summoned to give his testimony. He was the Secretary of State when the events in the Plaintiffs’ affidavits took place. Like Wagner and Brent, Mr. Lincoln objected to answering the Court’s questions. The Court stated their questions required no disclosure of confidential information but that if Mr. Lincoln felt he was at risk of disclosing anything confidential he did not have to answer.

    The Supreme Court granted the Plantiffs’ motion to show cause why a writ of mandamus should not be issued to Madison ordering him to deliver the commissions of Marbury and his associates. There was no cause shown by the defendant. The Court moved forward on the motion for writ of mandamus.

    Marbury v. Madison Opinion

    The Supreme Court decided unanimously in favor of Marbury and his co-Plaintiffs. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion.

    The Supreme Court recognized that Marbury and the co-Plaintiffs were entitled to their commissions and they sought the proper remedy for their grievances. Madison’s refusal to deliver the commissions was illegal but the Court could not order him to deliver the commissions via a writ of mandamus. The Court could not grant a writ because there was a conflict between Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

    Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 stated that the Supreme Court has the authority of the United States to issue “writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States”.1 This meant that Marbury was able to bring his case to the Supreme Court first instead of going through the lower courts.

    Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gave the Supreme Court the authority of original jurisdiction in cases where the State was a party or where public officials like ambassadors, public ministers, or consuls would be affected.

    Justice Marshall also recognized that the U.S. Constitution was the “supreme Law of the Land” that all judicial officers of the country must follow. He argued that if there was a law that conflicted with the Constitution, that law would be deemed unconstitutional. In this case, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional because it extended the Court’s authority beyond what the Constitution’s framers intended.

    Justice Marshall declared that Congress did not have the power to pass laws to modify the Constitution. The Supremacy Clause, Article IV, puts the Constitution above all other laws.

    In his opinion, Justice Marshall established the Supreme Court’s role of judicial review. It was in the Court’s power to interpret the law and that meant that if two laws conflict, the Court must decide which has precedence.

    A motion to show cause is a demand from a judge to a party of a case to explain why the court should or should not grant a specific motion. In this case, the Supreme Court wanted Madison to explain why a writ of mandamus should not be issued for the delivery of commissions to the Plaintiffs.

    An affidavit is a written statement that is sworn to be true.

    Marbury v. Madison Significance

    The Supreme Court’s opinion, namely the opinion of Chief Justice John Marshall, established the Court’s right to judicial review. This is significant because it completes the triangular structure of checks and balances between the branches of government. It was also the first time that the Supreme Court determined that an act of Congress was unconstitutional.

    There was nothing in the Constitution that provided this specific power to the Court; however, Justice Marshall believed that the United States Supreme Court should have equal power to the legislative and executive branches of the government. Since Marshall’s establishment of judicial review, the Court’s role has not been earnestly challenged.

    Marbury v. Madison Impact

    The Supreme Court's consequent establishment of judicial review has been exercised in other cases throughout history regarding:

    • Federalism - Gibbons v. Ogden;
    • Freedom of speech and expression - Schenck v. United States;
    • Presidential powers - United States v. Nixon;
    • Freedom of the press and censorship - New York Times v. United States;
    • Search and seizure - Weeks v. United States;
    • Civil rights like Obergefell v. Hodges; and
    • Right to privacy - Roe v. Wade.

    In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court struck down state laws banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. because the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause safeguards the right to marry as an individual's fundamental right. The Supreme Court also held that the First Amendment protects religious groups' ability to practice their beliefs, it does not allow states to deny same-sex couples the right to marry based on these beliefs.

    Marbury v. Madison - Key Takeaways

    • President John Adam and congress passed the judiciary act of 1801, which created new courts and expanded the number of judges before Thomas Jefferson took office.
    • William Marbury received a five-year appointment as the justice of the peace for the District of Columbia.
    • Secretary of state, James Madison, was ordered by President Thomas Jefferson not to deliver the commissions that remained when he took office.
    • William Marbury asked the court to grant a writ of mandamus to compel James Madison to deliver his commission under the authority given to the court by the judiciary act of 1789.
    • The supreme court agreed that a writ was the proper remedy but they could not provide it because section 13 of the judiciary act of 1789 and article iii, section 2 of the u. S. Constitution were in conflict.
    • The supreme court maintained that the constitution had supremacy over regular legislation and deemed the judiciary act of 1789 unconstitutional, effectively establishing the courts' role of judicial review.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Marbury v Madison

    What happened in Marbury v Madison?

    William Marbury was denied his commission as a justice of the peace and went to the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus against Secretary of State James Madison to hand over the commission. 

    Who won Marbury v. Madison and why?

    The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marbury; however, the Court was not able to grant the writ of mandamus because it was beyond their constitutional powers.

    What was the significance of Marbury v Madison?

    Marbury v. Madison was the first case where the Supreme Court struck down a law they deemed unconstitutional. 

    What was the most significant result of the ruling in Marbury v. Madison?

    The Supreme Court established the concept of judicial review through the Marbury v. Madison ruling. 

    What was the significance of the case of Marbury v. Madison?

    Marbury v. Madison completed the triangle of checks and balances by establishing the Court's role of judicial review. 

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