• Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the most important rulings in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, Marbury v. Madison established the Court’s right of judicial review of actions by other branches of government, thereby significantly enhancing the power of the judiciary branch.

Summary of Event

Although the power of judicial review has long been a fundamental principle of constitutional interpretation, it is not mentioned explicitly in the U.S. Constitution. The first clear case in which the U.S. Supreme Court, guided by the spirit of the Constitution’s provisions, declared a congressional act void was Marbury v. Madison. Marbury v. Madison (1803) Supreme Court, U.S.;Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court, U.S.;judicial review Marbury, William Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;Marbury v. Madison Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] [kw]Marbury v. Madison (Feb. 24, 1803) [kw]Madison, Madison v. (Feb. 24, 1803) Marbury v. Madison (1803) Supreme Court, U.S.;Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court, U.S.;judicial review Marbury, William Marshall, John [p]Marshall, John;Marbury v. Madison Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] [g]United States;Feb. 24, 1803: Marbury v. Madison[0180] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 24, 1803: Marbury v. Madison[0180] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 24, 1803: Marbury v. Madison[0180] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison]

When President John Adams was preparing to leave office in early 1801, he regarded the transfer of his presidential power to newly elected Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] as a virtual revolution in United States political life. Jefferson’s Republican Party Federalist Party;election of 1800 Republican Party (old);election of 1800 represented to Adams and the Federalists not merely a different political party that had opposed the Federalists’ stewardship of the federal government, but also the enemy of that government. The presidential election campaign of 1800 had been marked by almost hysterical appeals on both sides. The Federalists had identified themselves with government under the Constitution, while the Republicans seemed to call for a radical change in the nature of that government.

As Jefferson’s inauguration neared, the Federalists feared that their work of more than a decade in establishing a strong, stable government under the Constitution was in jeopardy, as Jefferson was also sweeping into office a Republican Congress. As the defeated candidate, Adams hoped to maintain some of his party’s power by appointing sixteen new circuit judges to strengthen the Federalist complexion of the federal bench during Jefferson’s administration.

Adams Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] appointed, and the Senate confirmed, his secretary of state, John Marshall, to the vacant position of chief justice. At the same time, Congress reduced the size of the Supreme Court from six to five members upon the occasion of the next vacancy. Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] was thus presented with a Court that would be headed by a political enemy and a membership that he might not be able to change before the end of his term. Congress also authorized Adams to appoint up to fifty justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. Their appointments had been approved by the Senate, but Adams and Marshall did not finish having all their commissions formally delivered to the new appointees before Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801. Jefferson then instructed his secretary of state, James Madison, not to deliver the remaining commissions.

In December, 1801, William Marbury, one of Adams’s appointees, sued in the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus (an ancient common-law writ compelling a corporation, government official, or lower court to perform a particular duty required by law) requiring Madison to deliver his commission. Marbury cited a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 Judiciary Act of 1789 that was designed to compel the secretary of state to perform the office’s duty under the law.

In its review of Marbury’s case on February 24, 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for the Supreme Court, declared that Marbury did indeed have a right to the commission that should be delivered to him. However, he also ruled that Marbury could not obtain from the Court a writ of mandamus ordering his commission’s delivery because the Court itself did not have the power to issue such a writ. The Court ruled that section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which had added authority to the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, was void because it violated Article II of the Constitution.

The original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (when the Court acts as a trial court) was limited to cases “affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state is a party.” Because Marbury fitted none of those categories and because there was no mention of the authority to issue writs of mandamus at the trial level, the Court refused to assume jurisdiction over his case, despite the fact that Congress had granted the Court such power in the Judiciary Act of 1789 Judiciary Act of 1789 . In short, Marbury was requesting that the Court exercise an appellate function that was beyond its jurisdiction. Because the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, the former must be declared unconstitutional. Although Congress had passed a law, the Supreme Court had essentially reviewed and, in this case, rejected it. The principle of judicial review was born.

Chief Justice John Marshall.

(Library of Congress)
Significance

The Supreme Court would not again exercise the power of judicial review until its notorious ruling in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, when it declared unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise Act of 1820, which excluded slaves from the territories. Neverthless, since 1857, the Supreme Court and other courts have cited the rule in Marbury v. Madison on countless occasions. To support his position that the Supreme Court could invalidate laws of Congress, Marshall relied heavily on the arguments of Alexander Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;on judicial review[Judicial review] in supporting the doctrines of judicial review as set forth in The Federalist Federalist papers No. 78. Hamilton argued that it is the duty of judges, when there is doubt, to say what the law in a particular case is. The Constitution is the supreme law. If, therefore, in the consideration of a case, the Supreme Court finds a conflict between the law as passed by Congress and the supreme law as stated in the Constitution, it must, under its constitutional responsibility, apply the supreme law. Marshall thus succeeded in securing for the Court a preeminent position in the interpretation of the Constitution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barber, Sotirios A. On What the Constitution Means. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. A scholarly approach to the Constitution as an entire document interpreted as an expression of ideals and a commitment to ethics and morality in society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Choper, Jesse, H. Judicial Review and the National Political Process: A Functional Reconsideration of the Role of the Supreme Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Advances the thesis that, although judicial review is incompatible with democracy, the Supreme Court must exercise that power when individual rights need protection within the political process. Otherwise, the Court should decline to exercise its authority, thereby reducing conflict between majoritarian democracy and judicial review. Includes references to cases and secondary legal materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clinton, Robert Lowry.“Marbury v. Madison” and Judicial Review. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. A review of sources that this author believes have wrongly interpreted the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. Extensive notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ely, John Hart. Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. Sets forth a new theory of constitutional interpretation based on principles of constitutional law. Detailed notes and citations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of Marbury v. Madison, John Marshall, judicial review, and many related subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newmyer, R. Kent. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Focuses on Marshall’s legal philosophies, analyzing some of his Supreme Court decisions and placing his beliefs in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snowiss, Sylvia. Judicial Review and the Law of the Constitution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. A review of the historical intent and the debate surrounding judicial review, and the controversy concerning whether the Framers intended to establish judicial review.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Christopher. The Rise of Modern Judicial Review: From Constitutional Interpretation to Judge-Made Law. New York: Basic Books, 1986. Describes and documents the transformation of constitutional interpretation and judicial power, from its initial understanding by the Founders to a natural rights theory and, ultimately, to an expansive and discretionary approach. Includes references to secondary sources and case law.

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