In Marbury v. Madison (1803) the Supreme Court announced for the first time the principle that a court may declare an act of Congress void if it is inconsistent with the Constitution. In its 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the concept of “judicial review,” the authority of courts to invalidate federal laws that violate the Constitution and state laws that violate either the Constitution or constitutional federal laws. This precedent has been affirmed consistently for over 200 years and has become embedded as a power of our “common law” precedents and a paramount tenet of the United States’ separation of powers and federalism. Judicial review helped give the Supreme Court co-equal standing with the legislative and executive branches and is a significant and effective check on congressional and executive power. It is therefore appropriate that Marbury v. Madison arose in a highly contentious, politically partisan context. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, defeated the Federalist Party candidate, and sitting president, John Adams. Jefferson’s victory in the election was not declared until February 17, 1801. Between that date and Jefferson’s inauguration on March 4, 1801, outgoing President Adams and his Federalist-majority Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 that created new judgeships for Adams to fill with Federalist judges prior to leaving office. Adams proceeded to fill the new judgeships during his remaining days as president, in what became known as “Midnight Appointments.” William Marbury, a Federalist from Maryland, was among the last of Adams’ appointments. Adams chose Marbury to fill the newly-created position of Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia.
William Marbury was denied his commission as justice of the peace for the District of Columbia by the Jefferson administration.
All of Adams’ last-minute judicial appointments were approved by the Senate, and most, but not all, commissions were delivered before Jefferson was sworn in as the nation’s third president. Theses commissions were official documents confirming Adams’ judicial appointments. John Marshall, Adams’ Secretary of State who also had been appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was in charge of ensuring that Adams’ commissions were delivered. On March 4, 1801 Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office and became president. He promptly ordered his temporary Secretary of State, Levi Lincoln, not to deliver the remainder of Adams’ commissions, thereby, in Jefferson’s opinion, voiding them. Marbury and his supporters, in contrast, contended that Adams’ judicial appointments became effective upon Senate appointment and that the physical delivery of the judicial commissions was merely ceremonial. Lincoln acted as Secretary of State until May 1, 1801, when James Madison assumed the post and became Jefferson’s permanent Secretary of State.
Prior to becoming the nation’s fourth president, James Madison served as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State.
Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1789. A writ of mandamus is a court order instructing a public official to perform an action. In Marbury v. Madison, a writ of mandamus was sought by Marbury to compel Madison, by then Secretary of State, to provide Marbury with his Justice-of-the-Peace commission. The Judiciary Act of 1789 granted the U.S. Supreme court original jurisdiction over such matters. The Supreme Court accepted the case but did not hear arguments until 1803 because Jefferson’s Congress reduced the times when the Supreme Court could meet to hear the cases in an effort to curb the power of the still Federalist-controlled judiciary.
John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and the longest-serving Chief Justice in the Supreme Court’s history.
Chief Justice John Marshall did not recuse himself from the action, in spite of having served as Secretary of State under John Adams and having himself been involved in delivering judicial commissions of the type in dispute. Moreover, Marshall used Marbury v. Madison to further the interests of the Federalist Party and to publicly chastise the new Democratic-Republican president for his deliberate refusal to effectuate a law enacted of his Federalist predecessor. Marshall accomplished his aim by cleverly posing and answering three politically-motivated questions in deciding Marbury, rather than the single jurisdictional question that alone was sufficient to resolve the matter (i.e. whether the Supreme Court was empowered to act as a trial court for purposes of issuing a writ of mandamus pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1789). Marshall’s three sequential questions were individually and collectively designed to increase the stature of the judiciary as a co-equal branch of the federal government and to make clear that Jefferson and his administration were constrained to follow the rule of law:
“1st. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands? 2d. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy? 3d. If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?” Marshall found that ‘[t]o withhold the commission…is an act deemed by the court not warranted by law, but violative of a vested legal right.” Marbury, therefore, had the right to the commission as justice of the peace and Jefferson had wrongfully ordered Madison to withhold it from him. Marshall then determined that Marbury must have a legal remedy because “[t]he government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.” Marshall determined that “[t]his…is a plain case of mandamus, either to deliver the commission, or a copy of it;” however, in a brilliant twist, Marshall declared that the Supreme Court could not provide this remedy. Marshall explains that Article III of the United States Constitution limits original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to “cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party,” and that Congress cannot expand the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction as it purported to do in the Judiciary Act of 1789: “[t]he authority, therefore, given to the Supreme Court, by the act establishing the judicial courts of the United States, to issue writs of mandamus to public officers, appears not to be warranted by the constitution; and it becomes necessary to inquire whether a jurisdiction so conferred can be exercised… the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they may both apply.”
Chief Justice Marshall’s original opinion. Marbury v. Madison was originally handwritten. The handwritten opinion was damaged by a fire in the Capitol in 1898.
With this determination, Chief Justice Marshall declared that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional and in so doing established the doctrine of “judicial review.” Marbury was not the first case in which the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of federal legislation. In 1796 in Hylton v. United States (3 U.S. 171 (1796)), the Court held that a yearly tax on horse-drawn carriages did not violate Article I’s requirement with respect to the apportionment of direct taxes. Marbury was, however, the first case in which the Supreme Court found a federal statute to be unconstitutional and, therefore, void. Since Marbury, the Supreme Court has found over 170 acts of Congress and close to 1,000 state and municipal laws to be unconstitutional. In 2013, in U.S. v. Windsor (570 U.S. (2013)), for example, the Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)’s requirement that a marriage be between one man and one woman unconstitutional "as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment." Previously, in U.S. v. Virginia (518 U.S. 515 (1996)), the Court found that Virginia Military Institute’s exclusion of women violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.