Marbury v. Madison
Before we get into the case itself, it’s important to know more about the Supreme Court and the people involved.
At the time, the Supreme Court was a low-standing branch of the government whose exact jurisdiction was still rather ambiguous. The court initially lacked its own building, having to make do with sharing Committee Room 2 on Capitol Hill with the district and circuit judges. So lightly regarded was the position of Chief Justice that it was quite difficult to convince a suitable candidate to take the job. Oliver Ellsworth resigned in December 1800 and an attempt to lure John Jay, the first Chief Justice, back to the role failed. John Marshall had initially been slated to take over as Secretary of War but was convinced to take the position on the Supreme Court by John Adams.
Marshall became Chief Justice at the end of January 1801 and continued to act in his capacity as Secretary of State until the Jefferson administration took power in March. Marshall began work to remove the court from the appearance of partisan politics as James Madison took over as Secretary of State.
Marshall was a moderate Federalist and key ally of John Adams. The eldest of 15 children, he developed the capacity to lead by persuasion from a young age. As a young lieutenant in the Continental Army, he saw firsthand the devastating effects caused by supply shortages in the winter of 1777. The blame for these shortages was placed on the states’ lack of provisions, so Marshall was wary of the states’ interests in being allowed to override national concerns.
He was a friendly and popular man, noted for his reserved character and rather disheveled appearance. In fact, he was once mistaken for a servant in Richmond and tasked with carrying a turkey to the home of a young businessman and apparently complied. But behind the folksy charm was a shrewd legal and political mind. He was often prepared to give his opponents the appearance of a short-term win if it allowed him to reap long-term rewards.
One man less charmed by Marshall was his distant cousin, Thomas Jefferson, who had just been elected the third president. Over time the two men would develop a pronounced dislike of one another, though their early meetings were cordial enough. Both were natives of Virginia and both had been Secretary of State, but the similarities end there. Jefferson was more introverted and concerned with ideological purity while Marshall was more pragmatic and a little too eager-to-please according to Jefferson. Marshall’s belief in a strong national government modified by checks and balances clashed with Jefferson’s views on democracy and states’ rights.
Now let’s get into how the case came about.
The case stemmed from the aftermath of the 1800 presidential election in which the incumbent John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson. This was the opposite outcome of the previous election. John Adams’ Federalist party also lost control of the House of Representatives and was on the way to losing the Senate to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. The outgoing Federalist congressional majority passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which expanded the size and legal jurisdiction of the federal courts while reducing power of the Supreme Court.
In the final days of his presidency, John Adams scrambled to appoint a large number of Federalists to the federal courts. One of the appointees was William Marbury, a Georgetown businessman and prominent Federalist who was to take up the role of Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. However, the appointments required the delivery of commissions in order to begin, and they did not arrive in time before the new administration took office in March 1801.
As incoming Secretary of State, it was now the responsibility of James Madison to confirm the appointments made by Adams. Understandably, the incoming president Jefferson was not pleased by the flurry of appointments made by the outgoing president. Once Jefferson took office, Madison was immediately ordered to halt the delivery of commissions to the judges appointed by Adams. Instead of disposing of or ignoring the appointments completely, he reduced the number from 42 to 30 and replaced 5 of the appointments with his own choices. William Marbury was one of the 17 men who lost out. When the case of William Marbury’s commission was brought before the Supreme Court, Madison ignored Marshall’s summons to explain the refusal.
Marbury was told by his friend and former Attorney General Charles Lee that he could ask the court to issue a writ of mandamus. A writ of mandamus was a way for the Supreme Court to mandate a government official to properly fulfill their official duties; in this case, to require Madison to confirm the appointments. The matter of compelling Madison via writ of mandamus to deliver Marbury’s commission was brought before the Supreme Court on December 16th, 1801.
Marbury v. Madison tasked the Supreme Court with deciding whether or not Marbury had a right to his commission, and if he did, whether there was any legal action to be taken. And, if Marbury had a right to his commission and there was a legal solution to the problem, did the Supreme Court have the authority to issue it? The case attracted little attention when it was first raised but rose in prominence as a fierce political battle was waged over repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 in the first months of 1802.
The case brought before the Supreme Court presented Marshall with a difficult situation. He knew that any attempt to compel Madison to deliver the commissions would simply be ignored and would damage the already low standing of the court. Equally, if the court failed to act, it would be seen by Federalist supporters as weak and unwilling to stand up to the Republicans. The court reached a decision which not only avoided both of these pitfalls but definitively answered lingering questions over the court’s jurisdiction.
A unanimous decision was rendered by the court on February 24, 1803. It took over an hour for Marshall to read aloud his opinion on the case. It can essentially be boiled down to the following:
- William Marbury did have the right to his commission.
- The Judiciary Act of 1789 empowered the court to enforce appointments.
- The act which empowered the court was itself unconstitutional.
The final aspect of the decision was the most significant. It asserted that the Judiciary Act violated the Constitution because it expanded the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court beyond what had been outlined in the Constitution. In the short-term, it gave the Republicans a modest political win but in the longer term it gave the Supreme Court tremendous power.
The most important long-term effect of the decision was that it established the principle of judicial review. It empowered the court to determine the constitutionality of laws and executive acts and strike down those which violated the Constitution. Judicial review would return to the Supreme Court for the second time in 1857 when the court struck down the Missouri Compromise during the Scott v Sandford case.
Now, before we go, let’s go over a few review questions.
1. What kind of order did Marbury ask the Supreme Court to issue in order to force Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission?
- Judicial review
- Search warrant
- Writ of mandamus
- Executive order
The correct answer is C! A writ of mandamus would have allowed the Supreme Court to mandate Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission.
2. The Supreme Court used _________ to declare the Judiciary Act unconstitutional. It was used again in 1857 to strike down the Missouri Compromise.
- Judicial review
- Executive order
- Writ of mandamus
The correct answer is A, judicial review.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!