Marbury v. Madison(1803)
In the election of 1800, John Adams was the outgoing president. Thomas Jefferson was the new incoming president.
Jefferson and Adams were political rivals. As he left office, Adams appointed 43 of his political friends as judges for the new District of Columbia. He did this so last minute that they became jokingly known as the “midnight judges.” He signed these 43 commissions and sent them over to his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to be sealed and delivered. In was so late that Marshall left them on the desk of the new Secretary of State, James Madison.
When Madison and Jefferson discovered what Adams had done the next morning, they refused to send out all of the commissions. Some were ignored.
One of the commissions that was ignored belonged to William Marbury. He was so angry that Madison had held back his commission that he sued Madison in federal court. The case became Marbury v. Madison.
Marbury took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He asked the court for a writ of mandamus. This writ would force Madison to give him his job.
He took his case to the Supreme Court because the Judiciary Act of 1789 passed by Congress said that in mandamus cases the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction.
When the court heard the case, the chief justice happened to be John Marshall, the same man who had been Adams’ Secretary of State and had failed to deliver the commissions in the first place.
Marshall did something that nobody could have guessed. He studied the Constitution and discovered that it specifically said that in mandamus cases the Supreme Court had appellate jurisdiction, NOToriginal jurisdiction, as the Judiciary Act had said. Therefore, the Judiciary Act and the Constitution disagreed.
He knew that Article VI of the Constitution stated that there could be no law in the U.S. that was higher than the Constitution. So, he ruled that since the Judiciary Act directly disagreed with the Constitution, that it must be illegal. And since Marbury had sued in the wrong court, Madison wins the case.
In declaring an act of Congress illegal, Marshall created a power of the Supreme Court called judicial review. It is the power of the courts to declare laws unconstitutional if they disagree with any part of the Constitution.