Constitutional Law, Political Law

Marbury v. Madison 5 U.S. 137 (Feb 24, 1803) Doctrine of Constitutional Supremacy

Facts of the case

Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the 1800 presidential election. Before Jefferson took office on March 4, 1801, Adams and Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created new courts, added judges, and gave the president more control over appointment of judges. The Act was essentially an attempt by Adams and his party to frustrate his successor, as he used the act to appoint 16 new circuit judges and 42 new justices of the peace. The appointees were approved by the Senate, but they would not be valid until their commissions were delivered by the Secretary of State. 

William Marbury had been appointed Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, but his commission was not delivered. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the documents. Marbury, joined by three other similarly situated appointees, petitioned for a writ of mandamus compelling the delivery of the commissions. 

Question

  1. Do the plaintiffs have a right to receive their commissions?
  2. Can they sue for their commissions in court?
  3. Does the Supreme Court have the authority to order the delivery of their commissions?

Conclusion

  • UNANIMOUS DECISION FOR MARBURY
    MAJORITY OPINION BY JOHN MARSHALLThough Marbury was entitled to it, the Court was unable to grant it because Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with Article III Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and was therefore null and void.

The Court found that Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was illegal, but did not order Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission via writ of mandamus. Instead, the Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 enabling Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III, Section 2, established. 

Marshall expanded that a writ of mandamus was the proper way to seek a remedy, but concluded the Court could not issue it. Marshall reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution. Congress did not have power to modify the Constitution through regular legislation because Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws. 

In so holding, Marshall established the principle of judicial review, i.e., the power to declare a law unconstitutional. 

Marbury v. Madison. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved September 17, 2020, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1789-1850/5us137

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