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Marbury vs Madison

the Supreme Court case in which the Court stated that the Constitution gives it the final authority to determine which laws are constitutional and which are not

In the general elections of 1800, Federalists lost control of both the Presidency and Congress. Hoping to at least maintain control over the judiciary, the outgoing Congress of 1801 passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which expanded the number of Circuit Courts from three to six, created sixteen new judgeships and a number of other judicial positions, and reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, effective upon the next vacancy. On March 2, 1801, outgoing President John Adams named 58 Federalist supporters to judicial positions, one of whom was William Marbury, who was appointed Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia. The outgoing Congress quickly confirmed all 58 appointments, and outgoing Secretary of State John Marshall set out to deliver all of the commissions, as required by law, before the Adams administration ended. Marshall was unable to get all of the commissions delivered, however, but he assumed that incoming Secretary of State James Madison would complete the task. When new President Thomas Jefferson ordered Madison to not deliver the remaining commissions, Marbury and the other appointees appealled to the Supreme Court, claiming that the Court had the authority to issue a Writ of Mandamus, forcing Madison to deliver the commissions. The case was argued before the Court on February 11, 1803, and the unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice John Marshall was handed down on February 24, 1803.

William Marbury
William Marbury

In hearing the case, the Court was presented with three distinct issues: 1) Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?; 2) If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?; and, 3) If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court? The Court also faced a serious dilemma -- if it ruled in favor of Marbury, the ruling would likely be defied by Jefferson, but if it ruled against Marbury, it would be admitting that the Court had no power. The Court ultimately ruled against Marbury, but did so by declaring that the law under which Marbury sought his remedy was unconstitutional.

On the first issue, the Court ruled that Marbury was indeed entitled to his commission, since that commission had been properly signed by President Adams and sealed by Secretary of State Madison and it could therefore only be voided by gross misconduct on Marbury's part. The Court further ruled that the laws of the United States did indeed afford Marbury a remedy that would result in his receiving his lawful commission. But, as for the final, and to Marshall the most important, issue, the Court ruled against Marbury by stating that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the Court the authority to issue a Writ of Mandamus in a case for which it did not have original jurisdiction, was in conflict with the Constitution, which does not give Congress the authority to expand the Court's powers, was unconstitutional. By so deciding, the Court stated that the Constitution gives it the final authority to determine which laws are constitutional and which are not.

part of the Marbury v Madison ruling, on the wall of the Supreme Court building
part of the Marbury v Madison ruling, on the wall of the Supreme Court building

SOURCE
The Oyez Project http://www.oyez.org/cases/1792-1850/1803/1803_0/

SEE ALSO
President John Adams
John Marshall
James Madison
President Thomas Jefferson

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This page was last updated on 02/23/2017.