Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)

2012-07-29 11:05:42

Marbury put the Supreme Court’s imprimatur on the doctrine of judicial review. The case was brought under the Judiciary Act of 1789’s grant to the Supreme Court of original jurisdiction in cases in which writs of mandamus were sought against high federal officers. William Marbury, who had been appointed by President John Adams as a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia, asked that Secretary of State James Madison be ordered to deliver his commission. The Court decided that Marbury had a right to his commission and that a writ of mandamus was the proper remedy, but it concluded that it could not issue that writ because the power to do so was not among Article III grants to the Supreme Court of original jurisdiction. The Judiciary Act’s delegation of that power to the Supreme Court, then, was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion justified the Court’s exercise of judicial review along the lines offered by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist No. 78: The statute and the constitutional provision were conflicting laws, he said, and the Court had to decide which of them to give effect. Since the Constitution had been enacted by a higher authority than had the Judiciary Act, it must be given effect despite the conflicting provision of the act.

The section of Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in which he sided with Marbury on the merits of his claim to his commission was very controversial at the time. President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary Madison rightly understood it as a rebuke to them.

Marbury did not mark the first time an American court had exercised judicial review. It did not even mark the first time a federal court, or a Supreme Court justice, had done so. It was, however, the first case in which the Supreme Court claimed that power, and it has stood for the federal courts’ power of judicial review ever since.


References and Further Reading

  • Gunther, Gerald, ed., John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland.
  • Gutzman, Kevin R. C. ‘‘Old Dominion, New Republic.’’ Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1999.
  • Hobson, Charles F. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law.
  • Hobson, Charles F. et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall.
  • Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation.