Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Historical Background

The Constitution called for the creation of a federal government with the following three branches, or parts: legislative, executive, and judiciary. Article I created Congress, the legislative, or lawmaking, body. Article II established the office of the President, who executes, or carries out, the laws. Article III created the federal court system consisting of one Supreme Court and other lower courts.

As with most aspects of the U.S. Constitution, the meaning of Article III was left open to interpretation. In 1789, shortly after the Constitution was ratified, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the federal court system. Congress created a Supreme Court, three circuit courts, and 13 district courts. There was one district court for each of the 13 states.

The Constitution did not specify the number of justices that could be appointed to the Supreme Court. Through the Judiciary Act, though, Congress provided for a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. However, the Constitution and Congress left the scope of the Court's power undefined. These powers would gradually be defined through the Court's interpretation of the Constitution in particular cases.

The earliest Chief Justices had very little impact on the direction of the Supreme Court. But John Marshall, who served from 1801 to 1835, influenced the action of the Supreme Court in ways still felt in the United States today. Early in Marshall's term as Chief Justice, a seemingly insignificant case came before the Supreme Court. However, that case, Marbury v. Madison, became one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in United States history.

Circumstances of the Case

In November 1800, President John Adams, a Federalist, lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, a Republican. The Federalists also lost control of Congress in the election. For the few months before the new President and Congress took office, however, Adams and his Federalist Party still had control.

During these months, Adams persuaded Congress to pass a new law, the Judiciary Act of 1801. This act gave Adams the power to appoint several new federal judges. The Federalists hoped to fill the nation's courts with people who would be opposed to the policies of the incoming Republican administration.

Adams was generally successful in this effort, appointing some 39 new judges. Adams's Secretary of State was to deliver the commissions, or official documents authorizing the appointments. The Secretary of State, though, failed to deliver the commissions to three new justices of the peace before Adams's term of office ended. One of the commissions was to go to William Marbury.

When Thomas Jefferson became President in March 1801, he learned of Adams's attempt to pack the court with Federalist judges. He also discovered the failure to deliver the remaining commissions. To prevent these Federalists from becoming justices of the peace, Jefferson instructed his Secretary of State, James Madison, to refuse the appointments.

Marbury went to the Supreme Court in an attempt to gain his post. He wanted the Court to issue an order forcing Madison to give Marbury his commission. The Judiciary Act of 1789 had given the Supreme Court the power to issue such an order.

The Court's Decision

In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Marshall, the Court stated that Marbury, indeed, had a right to his commission. But, more importantly, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional. In Marshall's opinion, Congress could not give the Supreme Court the power to issue an order granting Marbury his commission. Only the Constitution could, and the document said nothing about the Supreme Court having the power to issue such an order. Thus, the Supreme Court could not force Jefferson and Madison to appoint Marbury, because it did not have the power to do so.

While Marbury never became a justice of the peace, the Court's ruling in Marbury v. Madison established a very important precedent. A precedent is a legal decision that serves as an example in later court cases. Chief Justice Marshall's ruling interpreted the Constitution to mean that the Supreme Court had the power of judicial review. That is, the Court had the right to review acts of Congress and, by extension, actions of the President. If the Court found that a law was unconstitutional, it could overrule the law. Marshall argued that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land“ and that the Supreme Court has the final say over the meaning of the Constitution. He wrote, “lt is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.“

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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