Marbury v. Madison

5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)

"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." — Chief Justice John Marshall

Case Summary

The Federalist Party under George Washington and John Adams had controlled all three branches of the new government of the United States since the new U.S. Constitution had taken effect in 1788. The elections of November 1800, however, proved to be a disaster for the Federalist Party. The party's candidate for president, the incumbent John Adams, was defeated, and Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party for the first time also won control of both houses of Congress.

At this time in the United States, however, those defeated, as well as those elected in November did not leave office or take office until the following March. In this so-called "lame duck" period, the Federalists, therefore, did several things to maintain their voice in American government when March came. First, in February 1801, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Circuit Court Act of 1801, which increased the number of federal judges by creating circuit courts. President Adams appointed Federalists to fill these new judgeships and the Federalist-controlled Senate approved the appointments. Second, Oliver Ellsworth, the elderly Federalist Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, retired, thus allowing President Adams to name a new Chief Justice. He appointed the young Federalist John Marshall, his Secretary of State, who continued to serve in that position until Adams left office in March. Third, the Federalist Congress passed a law creating 42 new Justice of the Peace positions for the District of Columbia. President Adams immediately appointed Federalists to these positions, as well, and the Federalist Senate approved the appointments on March 3, 1801. Adams stayed up until midnight of his last day in office signing commissions for these appointees. As Secretary of State, John Marshall affixed the seal of the United States to these commissions and then undertook to deliver the commissions to the appointees. However, Adams' term as President expired before all of the commissions could be delivered. Four undelivered commissions were returned to the Secretary of State's office.

When the new President, Thomas Jefferson, discovered that the commissions had not been delivered, he directed his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver them. One of the undelivered commissions would have made William Marbury a Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia. Marbury decided to bring legal action and hired Charles Lee, a former U. S. Attorney General, to be his attorney. Using Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, Lee filed Marbury's suit directly with the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction. Part of Section 13 authorized the Supreme Court 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."

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following questions:

  1. Does Marbury have a right to his commission as a Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia?
  2. If he has that right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of the United States afford him a remedy?
  3. If the laws of the United States do afford him a remedy, is that remedy a writ of mandamus issued by this Court?


Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the opinion of the court

Marshall Court (1801-1835)

Chief Justice John Marshall himself wrote the opinion of the Court announcing the decision for a unanimous Court. Marshall begins his opinion by seeming to lecture President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison, telling them that they know Marbury is entitled to his job. In other words, the Court reasons, the answer to the first question is "Yes." He then reminds everyone that every individual must be able to claim the protection of the law when that individual's rights have been violated. The law, Marshall states, must provide a remedy for the violation because if it does not, then the U. S. is not a government of laws as we have claimed. One of the first duties of government, he asserts, is providing a remedy for a violation of rights. The Court thus answers "Yes" to the second question. Thus far in his opinion, it appears that the Court is ruling for Marbury.

Marshall now turns to answer the third and most important question, and in the process, the Court decides something that no one had even argued or knew was involved. He begins by reminding everyone that the Constitution is not only law but also that it is the supreme law of the land according to Article VI, Paragraph 2 and that it cannot be changed merely by an act of Congress. Then he notes that an act of the legislative branch contrary to the Constitution is void and that judges take an oath to recognize, interpret, and enforce the Constitution. Article III of the Constitution, Marshall correctly points out, specifically spells out the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, limiting it to "cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party."

Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, he asserts, under which Marbury's case was brought directly to the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction, adds to the Court's original jurisdiction and is therefore in conflict with Article III of the Constitution. Consequently, Marshall concludes, according to Article VI, Paragraph 2, Section 13 is unconstitutional. As a result, he adds, the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction over the case, and without jurisdiction, no court can hear and decide a case. In what thus amounts to the Court's only legally binding decision, the Court dismisses Marbury's case. In other words, the answer to the third question is "No." In the process of answering this third question, Marshall spells out what may well be the most significant outcome of the case: "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."



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