Sample Brief—Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 1 Cranch 137 (1803) FACTS: William Marbury was one of President Adams’ “midnight appointments.” All of the necessary paperwork and procedures were completed to secure his appointment as a justice of the peace for Washington, D.C., but Secretary of State John Marshall – himself a midnight appointee to a somewhat more exhalted judicial position – failed to deliver his commission. Upon assuming the presidency, Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State – James Madison – not to deliver the commission. Under authority of the Judiciary Act of 1789, Marbury sued to ask the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus to force Madison to deliver the commission.
ISSUES: 1) Does Marbury have a right to this commission? 2) If he has a right, is there a remedy at law to realize it? 3) If there is a remedy, is it one that can issue from the Supreme Court?
HELD: 1) Yes. 2) Yes. 3) No.
REASONING (Marshall for a 6-0 Court):
To 1. Because Marbury’s commission was signed by the President and sealed by the Secretary of State, he has a legal right to the commission.
To 2. Because the signing and sealing completed the appointment process, denial of the commission is a violation of the law. In a government of laws, a violation of the law creates a governmental responsibility to remedy the violation. A writ of mandamus is such a remedy.
To 3. The Constitution is the “supreme law of the land” (Art. VI). As such, it is “superior” and “fundamental and paramount.” It establishes “certain limits” on the power of the government it creates. This includes the Congress. Without such limits, “it would be giving to the legislature a practical and real omnipotence.” Thus, “a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law.”
“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” When a case comes to the Supreme Court, the Court must decide that case according to the law. If “ordinary” (statutory) legislation conflicts with the limits imposed on government by the Constitution, the fundamental law must govern the ordinary. If the legislature passed an act that the Constitution forbids – like a tax on interstate sales, an ex post facto law, or a treason conviction based on something other than two witnesses or a confession in court – the courts would have to strike it down. Otherwise, the Constitution would not limit government. Courts have this power because they decide cases under law; judges take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and this is part of that function.
Following these principles, Marbury cannot receive a mandamus from the Court. The Constitution creates two categories of jurisdiction for the Supreme Court – original and appellate. Congress, under Article III, has the power to regulate appellate jurisdiction; no such power, however, is given for the regulation of original jurisdiction. The latter is completely and exclusively defined by Article III – it cannot be added to or taken away from. The provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which added matters of mandamus to the original jurisdiction of the Court, therefore, is beyond the power given to Congress by the people in the Constitution. Having no legitimate jurisdiction over this matter, the Court cannot provide Marbury with the remedy he seeks.
DECISION: Dismiss for want of jurisdiction.
SIGNIFICANCE: Marshall, relying heavily on “logical reasoning” and little constitutional text, read the power of judicial review over acts of the national government into American constitutional law. This power was extended over the actions of state governments in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816) and state courts in Cohens v. Virginia (1819), and is 1) the source of most of the authority the Court has come to know, and 2) the focal point of the ultimate debate about the Court’s proper constitutional role: should it exercise this power frequently (activism) or sparingly (restraints).