Marbury v. Madison

Marbury vs. Madison is one of the most important Supreme Court cases in American history. This is because it is the case that established judicial review. The idea of judicial review was introduced in the Federalist Papers.[1] Still, it had not been officially in American law until John Marshall declared it to be so in his decision regarding this case. Marbury vs. Madison was tried in 1803 but revolved around actions that took place in 1801.

This case had to do with what is now referred to as the midnight appointments. In the final few days of his Presidency, John Adams made a few last-minute appointments. Adams was a Federalist trying to ensure that Federalists still had power after he left office. You see, his successor, Thomas Jefferson, was a Democratic-Republican. Both parties had vastly different beliefs, and Adams knew his party was at risk. He specifically filled these positions with people known to be very anti-Jeffersonian.

After the transition of power was made, Jefferson and his Secretary of State, James Madison, found that some of the appointments Adams had made were yet to be delivered. Instead of delivering the appointments, they decided to appoint their own people. William Marbury was one of the appointments Madison refused to give. He demanded that he get his promised spot and sued Madison in order to do so.

Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus that would force Madison to deliver the commissions Adams had already gotten approved by the Senate. On the other hand, Madison and Jefferson believed that the commissions were invalid because they had not been delivered on time. It is important to note that one of Adams’ midnight appointments was the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Before this, he was Adams’ Secretary of State and was in charge of delivering these commissions.

The holding was that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 is unconstitutional to the extent it purports to enlarge the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court beyond that permitted by the Constitution. Congress cannot pass laws that are contrary to the Constitution, and it is the role of the judiciary to interpret what the Constitution permits.[2] What this means is that what Madison did was illegal. It was his duty to deliver the commissions, no matter which President signed them. Now, although this is important, it is not all that happened. Marshall could have just said that Madison had to deliver the commissions, but that did not happen.

Chief Justice John Marshall was faced with a tough decision when it came to this ruling. The Court would have had every right to issue a writ of mandamus like Marbury wanted. The problem with that was that the judiciary would have no power to enforce said writ. Thusly, because they could not enforce what they said, Jefferson and Madison would most likely ignore the writ, and that would have weakened the power of the Judiciary Branch.

Therefore, Marbury did officially win his case. Madison was declared to be in the wrong, yet Marbury would never receive his commission. Instead, Marshall declared that the law giving the judiciary the right to issue a writ of mandamus was unconstitutional. This law was struck down, which, most importantly, established judiciary review.

As a final note, it is essential to note that Marshall is one of the most critical Chief Justices in American history. Not only was he a Federalist and anti-Jeffersonian, but he was also a cousin to the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

[1] Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 78, (Read Books Ltd, 2018).
[2] Chemerinsky, Erwin (2019). Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies (6th ed.). New York: Wolters Kluwer, 44.


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