The election of 1800 transferred power in the federal government from the Federalist Party to the Republican Party. In the closing days of President John Adams’s administration, the Federalists created many new government offices, appointing Federalists to fill them. One of the last-minute or “midnight” appointments was that of William Marbury. Marbury was named a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. President Adams had signed the papers, but his secretary of state, John Marshall, somehow neglected to deliver the papers necessary to finalize the appointment.
The new president, Thomas Jefferson, was angry at the defeated Federalists’ attempt to “keep a dead clutch on the patronage” and ordered his new secretary of state, James Madison, not to deliver Marbury’s commission papers. Marbury took his case to the Supreme Court, of which John Marshall was not the Chief Justice, for a writ of mandamus (an order from a court that some action be performed) commanding Madison to deliver the commission papers in accordance with the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Article III of the Constitution sets up the Supreme Court as the head of the federal judicial system. Historians believe that the founders meant the Court to have the power of judicial review, that is, the power to review the constitutionality of acts of Congress and to invalidate those that it determines to be unconstitutional. The Constitution, however, does not specifically give the court this right.
Chief Justice John Marshall, as a Federalist, believed strongly that the Supreme Court should have the power of judicial review. When the Marbury case presented the perfect opportunity to clearly establish that power, Marshall laid out several points, which the court believed supported the right of judicial review. At the time, the decision was viewed as a curtailment of the power of the president, but people today recognize that the case established, once and for all, the importance of the Supreme Court in the American Government.
Newly appointed Justice Marshall reviewed the case on the basis of three questions: Did Marbury have a right to the commission? If so, was he entitled to some remedy under United States law? Was that remedy a writ from the Supreme Court?
Marshall decided the first question by holding that an appointment is effective once a commission has been signed and the U.S. seal affixed, as Marbury’s commission had been. Therefore, Marbury had been legally appointed and Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission violated Marbury’s right to the appointment. In response to the second question, Marshall held that Marbury was entitled to some remedy under United States law.
The final question examined whether the Court had the power to issue the writ. Marshall explained that the right to issue writs like the one Marbury was requesting had been granted the Court by the Judiciary Act of 1789. This law, however, was unconstitutional: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is…If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.” The Supreme Court thus became the final judge of constitutionality, thus establishing the principle of judicial review.
At the time, observers were much more interested in the practical result of the ruling- that the Court could not issue the writ, and could not, therefore, force the appointment of Marbury. Congress could not expand the Court’s original jurisdiction, and the Constitution does not give the Court the authority to issue a writ. They paid much less attention to the long-term implications of the decision. Here is how a constitutional scholar evaluates he Marbury decision:
“Over the passage of time (the) Marbury (decision) came to stand for the monumental principle, so distinctive and dominant a feature of our constitutional system, that the court may bind the coordinate branches of the national government to its rulings on what is the supreme law of the land. That principle stands out from Marbury like the grin on a Cheshire cat; all else, which preoccupied the nation's attention in 1803, disappeared in our Constitutional law."
Not until fifty years after rendering the Marbury decision did the Court again declare a law unconstitutional, but by then the idea of judicial review had become a time-honored principle.
Questions 1. Why is the Marbury case important in the history of the Supreme Court?
2. In what way did the Marbury decision enhance the system of checks and balances provided for in the Constitution?
3. The United States is one of the few countries in which the highest court of the land has the power to declare a law unconstitutional. Do you believe that such a power is of benefit to a country? Explain your answer.
4. Justice John Marshall was a Federalist who believed in a strong national government and certainly moved in this direction with his Marbury ruling. Do you think it is proper for a Supreme Court Justice to allow his or her personal political opinions to influence the rulings of the Court? Explain.