Origin of the Case: In 1801, just before he left office, President John Adams appointed dozens of Federalists as judges. Most of these “midnight judges” took their posts before Thomas Jefferson, Adams’s Democratic-Republican successor, took office. Jefferson ordered his secretary of state, James Madison, to block the remaining appointees from taking their posts. One of these appointees, William Marbury, asked the Supreme Court, using the Judiciary Act of 1789 as his argument, to issue an order forcing Madison to recognize the appointments.
Court’s Opinion: Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the Court’s opinion on the case and stated that Marbury had every right to receive his appointment. Further, Marshall noted the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave Marbury the right to file his claim directly with the Court. However, Marshall questioned whether the Court had the power to act. The answer, he argued, rested on whether this be a case that could be argued directly in the Supreme Court without first being heard by a lower court.
This case was the first time that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress (a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789) to be unconstitutional. This is an exercise of the power of judicial review—the power of the federal courts to interpret laws in light of the Constitution.
Chief Justice John Marshall explained, “[T]he Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle… that a law [offensive] to the Constitution is void (cancelled)…Furthermore, the Supreme Court is the proper authority to decide if a law is in conflict with the Constitution.” He called this responsibility “the very essence of judicial duty.” In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton discussed “the rights of the courts to pronounce legislative acts void, because contrary to the Constitution…” He explained in Federalist No. 78, “No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid…” Although the Founders, including Hamilton, considered the courts the weakest branch of government, their power to identify and invalidate unconstitutional laws is essential to the preservation of constitutional law.
Figure it out with a partner.
What did William Marbury want? Who kept it from receiving it and why?
His appointed judicial position/Jefferson ordered Madison to block the position, because Jefferson was a Democratic Republican and Marbury was a Federalist.
Why did Marbury take Madison to court? What law was his case based on?
To have the Supreme Court issue an order forcing Madison to recognize his appointment/ Judiciary Act of 1789
Why did Chief Justice John Marshall question the Supreme Court’s power to act?
Constitution states cases heard in the Supreme Court and this did not qualify (should have first been heard in a lower court)
What principle did this case establish?
What did he call the “very essence of judicial duty”?
The responsibility of the Supreme Court to decide if a law conflicts with the Constitution
Throughout American history, some have asserted that states, and not the Supreme Court, are the rightful judges of whether a law is constitutional. What would be some advantages and disadvantaged of this arrangement?