Important Supreme Court Cases in U. S. History: Marbury v. Madison (1803)



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U.S. History

Important Supreme Court Cases in U.S. History:

Marbury v. Madison (1803):
There have been hundreds of thousands of cases that have been tried before the United States’ court system. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that the right to free speech is limited if such speech creates unnecessary panic in the case of Schenk v. the United States (1919). In the case of Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) the court ruled that schools could not discriminate on the basis of race. The court decided that states did not have the right to ban interracial marriage in the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967). All of these cases are viewed as important legal milestones in American history, but historians argue that none of them would have been possible if not for the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).
Before he left office in 1801, President John Adams, a Federalist, appointed as many Federalist judges as he could in the nation’s courts. Adams hoped that Marshall and the other judges would “check and balance” the powers of Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected Democratic-Republican president. While Adams signed the letters which officially appointed the new judges, he failed to actually deliver most of them before leaving office. President Jefferson did not want the courts to be packed with Federalist judges, so he did not deliver them.
One of the appointees, William Marbury, failed to receive his letter and he asked the Supreme Court to order James Madison, the Secretary of State, to deliver the letter. The decision of the court became known as Marbury v. Madison. The court ruled that Marbury should have received his letter, but the court also ruled that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, under which Marbury had filed his lawsuit, was unconstitutional. Therefore, Madison was not legally required to appoint Marbury or any of the other Federalists to whom Adams had failed to deliver letters.
The details of the case are historically unimportant. The precedent established by the case is extremely important. Legal historians note that Marbury v. Madison established the court’s power of judicial review. Judicial review is an extraordinary federal power which allows the Supreme Court to have the final say when determining if laws enacted by Congress and the President are constitutional (legal) or unconstitutional (illegal). Once the court has ruled that a law

is unconstitutional, neither Congress nor the President can re-enact the

law. The case of Marbury v. Madison may have seemed trivial at the time,

but the verdict transformed the Supreme Court into one of the most

powerful branches of the United States’ government.

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Name: U.S. History

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Time to Summarize:

Marbury v. Madison: The Most Important Court Case in American History!


  1. Which of the following best describes the main idea of this article?

    1. Judicial review is an extraordinary federal power that gives the Supreme Court the right to determine if laws are constitutional or unconstitutional.

    2. The case of Marbury v. Madison transformed the Supreme Court into one of the most powerful branches of the United States’ government..

    3. The Supreme Court is an important branch of our government because the cases it decides affect free speech, education and marriage.

    4. In the case of Marbury v. Madison the court determined that Marbury should have been appointed as a judge, but the law that he filed his lawsuit under was unconstitutional.




  1. Write a summary of today’s reading. Keep in mind the “Characteristics of a Well Written Summary” as you write.


The Characteristics of a Well-Written Summary


  • Begins by stating the main idea of the text (paraphrase)

  • Paraphrases the major details from the text

  • Major details included clearly support the main idea

  • Follows the structure of the original text

  • Brief, but still shows a deep understanding of the text

  • Concludes with a thoughtful statement about the main idea of the text


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