Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that first established that federal courts had the power to overturn an act of Congress on the grounds that it violated the United States Constitution.
John Adams rushes for Supreme Court seat
The strange chain of events that led to Marbury v. Madison began in January 1801, when President John Adams, who had been defeated in his candidacy for re-election, had to occupy the seat of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States which was vacant by the ailing Olivier Ellsworth. Adams initially asked New York Gov. John Jay, who had been the country’s first chief justice, to take over the post, but Jay turned it down. Adams then appointed his secretary of state and close adviser, John Marshall, to fill the post. Although Marshall, 45, a veteran of the War of Independence, was a lawyer and congressman before serving in the Adams administration, he had no experience as a judge. Nonetheless, just a week after his appointment, the US Senate unanimously confirmed him in first place on the court.
Adams was still two months into his tenure and needed help, so he asked Marshall to serve as both Secretary of State and Chief Justice. As Cliff Sloan and David McKean write in their book The big decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the battle for the Supreme Court, this arrangement would present today an impossible conflict of interest. But in 1801, it might not have seemed so bad. Although the framers of the Constitution intended the Supreme Court to run a judicial branch that shared equally power with the legislative and executive branches of the US government, it was not clear now much power that the Supreme Court actually had. At that time, the court did not even have its own building; instead, he overheard business in a basement room of the United States Capitol.
Adams, meanwhile, rushed to fill as many other judicial posts as possible before his political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, took office. The day before Adams’ term ended, he appointed 42 men to serve as justices of the peace, a modest position that resolved minor legal cases. After the Senate approved his choices the next day, Marshall was tasked with finalizing the documents and handing over the commissions. It was a lot of work and he didn’t have four, including one belonging to a Virginia politician named William Marbury.
Jefferson Retains Commissions, Marbury Petitions Court
When Jefferson took control of the White House, he was upset by Adams’ last-second attempt to fill federal courts with political allies. He told his own Secretary of State, James Madison, to hold back the four undelivered commissions. Marbury sued to get his job. As Georgetown University lawyer Susan Low Bloch writes, Marbury could have gone to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, where he might have had a better chance of winning, based on the previous decisions of this court. But instead, he went straight to the Supreme Court and applied for a subpoena of mandamus, ordering Madison to give them their commissions.
On February 10, 1803, the Supreme Court met to hear the case. The Jefferson administration was represented by Attorney General Levi Lincoln Sr., while the Marbury side was defended by his predecessor Charles Lee. The case revolved around three questions. First, were Marbury and the other appointees entitled to their commissions? Second, if they had a right that had been violated, did the federal law provide a remedy? Finally, was an order from the Supreme Court of the United States the right remedy to resolve the problem?
Marshall, who presided over the case despite having played a part in the events, found himself in a difficult position. Marbury had a good cause, but had the court ruled in favor, it was not clear whether Jefferson would obey his ruling or simply ignore it, which would have seriously weakened the Supreme Court at a time when it was still in the process of forge its authority. But if the court ruled in favor of the Jefferson administration, it would appear to have yielded to political pressure.
The Marbury v. Madison
The solution to the problem was ingenious. The court ruling, written by Marshall, concluded that the rights of Marbury and the other appointees had been violated by Jefferson when he blocked their commissions, which had already been confirmed and affixed with seals. In addition, Marbury had the right to sue and seek legal recourse, and a federal judge could issue a writ ordering Jefferson to comply.
But on the third question, things got even more complicated. The Supreme Court’s ability to hear the Marbury case directly was based on part of the Judicial Act of 1789, which gave the court the power to issue writs directly to federal office holders, without a plaintiff has to go through a lower court. But as Marshall wrote, Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution already specified that the tribunal had initial jurisdiction in limited types of cases involving “ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state must be a party ”, and could only act as a court of appeal in all the others. The expansion by Congress of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was therefore unconstitutional.
“The powers of the legislator are defined and limited; and so that those boundaries are not mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written, ”Marshall wrote.
Accordingly, Marshall concluded, “The Constitution of the United States confirms and reinforces the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law contrary to the Constitution is void, and that the courts, as well as others departments, are bound by this instrument.
The authority of the Supreme Court is established
The decision in Marbury vs. Madison was immediately recognized across the country as capital, to the point that many newspapers reprinted it in its entirety, according to Sloan and McKean. Although the idea that the Supreme Court could overturn an act of Congress actually predated Marbury v. Madison — Alexander Hamilton made this point in The Federalist Papers in 1788 — the principle was now firmly established in law.
Equally important, the ruling established the power of federal courts over other branches of government to interpret the laws of the land. “It is categorically up to the province and the duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marshall wrote. “Those who apply the rule to particular cases must necessarily explain and interpret this rule. If two laws conflict, the courts must decide how each works. »Today, thanks to Marbury vs. Madison, the authority of the federal courts is undisputed.