Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Historical Context/Facts of the Case: In the Election of 1800 (“Revolution of 1800”), Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) defeated John Adams (federalist) resulting in a clear signal that the American system was shifting. Before Jefferson took office on March 4, 1801, Adams and Congress passed the Judiciary Act 1801 through holding “lame duck sessions” of Congress — meaning that Congress met during the transitional period between the election and the new president assuming office. This Act created new districts/courts, added judges, and gave the president more control over appointment of judges — thus increasing the power of the executive branch (a shift towards federalism). The Act was essentially an attempt by Adams and his party to frustrate his successor, as he used the act to appoint 16 new circuit judges and 42 new justices of the peace. The appointees were approved by the Senate, but they were not valid until their commissions were delivered by Secretary of State John Marshall.

William Marbury was appointed “Justice of the Peace” (a position not in the Constitution) in the District of Columbia, but his commission was not delivered. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the documents. Marbury, joined by three other similarly situated appointees, petitioned for a writ of mandamus compelling the delivery of the commissions.


Key Questions:

(1) Do the plaintiffs have a right to receive their commissions?

(2) Can they sue for their commissions in court?

(3) Does the Supreme Court have the authority to order the delivery of their commissions?


Court’s Decision: Unanimous Decision for Madison

Majority Opinion:

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and the court ruled that Marbury’s appointment was legitimate — and therefore Madison’s refusal to deliver the commision was illegal. Therefore, the Court must take action to “protect the American people” even against the directive of the President. The most significant detail of the ruling was the fact that Chief Justice Marshall addressed the judicial review and the “writ of mandamus” (a judicial order legally compelling an inferior official to do something). The ruling stated that although the writ was the proper way to resolve the conflict of appointment, the Court could not grant that “writ” in this context. Marshall reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution. Congress did not have power to modify the Constitution through regular legislation because Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws (Article III, Section 2, U.S. Constitution).

In so holding, Marshall established the principle of judicial review, i.e., the power to declare a law unconstitutional and the Supreme Court avoided the conflict of blaming the Jefferson administration for refusing to acknowledge the “midnight appointments” (last minute judicial appointments) made by John Adams.


Impact/Other Relevant Case Law:

Marshall’s masterful verdict has been widely hailed. In the face of attacks on the judiciary launched by Jefferson and his followers, Marshall needed to make a strong statement to maintain the status of the Supreme Court as the head of a coequal branch of government. By asserting the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional (which the court would not exercise again for more than half a century), Marshall claimed for the court a paramount position as interpreter of the Constitution.

Although Marbury v. Madison set an abiding precedent for the court’s power in that area, it did not end debate over the court’s purview, which has continued for more than two centuries. In fact, it is likely that the issue will never be fully resolved. But the fact remains that the court has claimed and exercised the power of judicial review through most of U.S. history—and, as Judge Learned Hand noted more than a century later, the country is used to it by now. Moreover, the principle fits well with the government’s commitment to checks and balances. Few jurists can argue with Marshall’s statement of principle near the end of his opinion, “that a law repugnant to the constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”


This would later impact (serve as case law for) the following cases:

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford
  • The Slaughterhouse cases
  • Lochner v. New York
  • Brown v. Board of Education
  • Plessy v. Ferguson
  • United States v. Lopez
  • United States v. Morrison