Background Summary & Questions – Marbury v Madison

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Background Summary & Questions – Marbury v Madison

Directions: Read this summary and mark it up. Answer the questions at the bottom.

Background Summary & Questions

Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Republican Party, won the election of 1800. The outgoing President, John Adams, proceeded to rapidly appoint 58 members of his own party to fill government posts created by Congress.

It was the responsibility of the Secretary of State, John Marshall, to "deliver the commissions," finish the paperwork, and give it to each of the newly appointed judges. Although Marshall signed and sealed all of the commissions, he failed to deliver 17 of them to the respective appointees. Marshall assumed that his successor would finish the job, but when Jefferson became President, he told his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver some of the commissions, because he did not want members of the opposing political party to take office. Those individuals couldn't take office until they actually had their commissions in hand.

William Marbury, whom Adams had appointed as justice of the peace of the District of Columbia, was one of these last-minute appointees who did not receive his commission. Marbury sued James Madison and asked the Supreme Court of the United States to issue a writ of mandamus, a court order that requires an official to perform or refrain from performing a certain duty. In this case, the writ would have ordered Madison to deliver the commission.

Marbury argued that he was entitled to his commission and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court of the United States original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus. Madison disagreed. When the case came before the Court, John Marshall — the person who had failed to deliver the commission in the first place — was the new Chief Justice. If this situation were to arise today, Marshall would likely disqualify himself because of a conflict of interest.


  1. Who was Marshall likely to side with, Marbury or Madison? Why?

Marshall would most likely side with Madison since he was the one who had given him instructions to not send those commissions out. Also, since he already didn’t want the members of opposing political parties to take office, he wouldn’t want Marbury to take office. Madison is already faithful to him, to listen when he told him not to carry out those commissions. If so, he would help Madison as to not lose another helper of his, and to get rid of Marbury since if his decisions are different than his, he might lose his power as Chief Justice. If he gave Marbury the chance, there might be the possibility of him trying to overthrow him and the chance that Marbury’s idea goes against his.

  1. If the Court decided that Marbury was entitled to the commission, how could it be sure that the executive branch would deliver it? Does the Court have the power to force compliance?

I don’t think that the court has power to force compliance. They is no way to force compliance, since in the end, it all depends on one man, and if he doesn’t bend under all the pressure given, then it can’t be done.

  1. What would happen if the Court issued the writ, but the executive branch refused to comply? 

They can’t do anything. They can’t really force anything upon the executive branch.

  1. If Congress passes a law that conflicts with the Constitution, which one are we required to follow: the new law or the U.S. Constitution?

It would depend if that law is good for the whole country or not. If it isn’t, and there is fair reason to support it, then the citizens shouldn’t have the follow the new law. Then they wouldn’t follow it.

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