Case Summary: Marbury v Madison (1803, 5 US 137)

By | May 26, 2021
Case Summary: Marbury v Madison

Marbury v Madison[1] is arguably the most important legal case in United States Supreme Court history. Decided on February 24, 1803, the U.S. Supreme Court established two cornerstones of constitutional law and the modern judiciary. First, the Supreme Court in this case declared an act of Congress unconstitutional and established the most essential feature of rule of law, the doctrine of Judicial Review.

The opinion of the court, in this case, written by Chief Justice John Marshall is considered one of the foundation stones of Constitutional law of the United States. The court laid down those Federal laws that are in contravention with the U.S. Constitution will be held invalid, and the power to determine whether federal laws are unconstitutional rests in the hands of the Judiciary. This is referred to as judicial review.

I. Synopsis of Rule of Law

The U.S. Supreme Court has the authority, as granted by the Constitution of the United States to judicially review the impugned executive actions and legislative acts. However, in doing so, the Supreme Court has a limited jurisdiction of which the boundaries are set by the Constitutional Itself and no acts of the Congress should enlarge this jurisdiction of the Court.

The U.S Constitution establishes certain limitations on the exercise of judicial review power of the Court which is not to be transcended or enlarged by the executive of legislative actions of different departments of the government.

The constitution clearly defines the power of the legislature and puts certain limits to it which cannot be mistaken or forgotten. But here it raises two essential questions:

  1. To what purpose are legislative powers limited; and
  2. To what purpose is that limitation committed to writing in the constitution, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?

Notably, if the limitation put don’t confine the person concerned on whom it is imposed, and if the acts prohibited and act allowed are of equal obligation, then in that case the prime distinction between a government, having limited and unlimited powers is abolished. It’s a proposition too plain to be contested, that the Constitution bounds any legislative act in contravention to it; or, that the legislature may amend the Constitution by passing an ordinary enactment.

The point to be noted here is that until the case of Marbury v. Madison, it was not clear which branch of government holds the final say in deciding which act is a constitutional law and which one is not. Even the question regarding whether a federal power could still be enforced if it is repugnant to the Constitutional provisions was resolved in this case by the introduction of the Judicial Review power of the Court.

II. Factual Background | Marbury v Madison

In the 1800 Presidential election, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams but before the incoming President Jefferson could hold his office on March 4, 1801, the outgoing President John Adams and Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. The act established new courts, added new justices, and vested more power and control with the President over the appointment of judges.

The Judiciary Act, 1801 was nothing but 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 filed a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the documents. Marbury, accompanied by three other similarly situated appointees, filed a writ petition of mandamus compelling the delivery of the commissions by Madison.

So, essentially, the present case involved a dispute between the outgoing President and the incoming President. In the case, Chief Justice John Marshall sided with Jefferson, his political rival, in the Supreme Court’s decision but took the opportunity to enlarge the court’s power in doing so.

III. Issues Involved

  1. Do the plaintiffs have a right to receive the judicial commissions?
  2. Did the law provide the Plaintiff with a “remedy” (a way to get the commission) in court
  3. Was the appropriate remedy a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court? Does the Supreme Court have the authority to order the delivery of their commissions?

IV. Decision Held

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the refusal on part of Madison to deliver the commission was illegal though it didn’t order him to hand over Marbury’s commission via a writ of mandamus. Instead of that, the court held that provision § 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which gave the court authority to issue the writ of mandamus to an officer, was contrary to the Constitution.

Because the provision enabled Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was in itself contrary to the constitution, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III, Section 2, established. Therefore the § 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was held to be unconstitutional and void.

The Supreme Court granted a rule to show cause, requiring the Secretary, Madison to show cause why a mandamus shouldn’t be issued against him to direct him to deliver to the commissions. Thereafter, no cause was shown by Madison and the petitioner filed a motion for mandamus. It was observed that the Petitioner had a vested legal right in his appointment because his commission had been already signed by the President, sealed by the Secretary of State, and the appointment was not revocable.

The United States Constitution vests the whole judicial power in the hands of the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as congress shall, from time to time, ordain and establish. The Judicial power of the Apex Court is extended to all cases arising under the laws of the country and consequently in some form may be exercised over this case, because the right claimed is given by an act of the United States. In the distribution of this power, the court declared that:

“The supreme court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the supreme court shall have appellate jurisdiction.” 

The Chief Justice, Marshall further said that a writ of mandamus is a proper way to seek a remedy, but the Court couldn’t issue it. It further reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 was in contravention with the Constitution. Congress didn’t have the power to modify or amend the Constitution through ordinary legislation because the Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws.  Thus, the court established the doctrine of Judicial Review which gives the power to the court to declare a law unconstitutional.

V. Conclusion

The significance of the present case is both legal and political. Although this case established the principle of judicial review and a justifiable constitution on which the remainder of constitutional law rests, it also transformed the Supreme Court from an incongruous institution to an equipotent head of a branch of the federal government.

The masterful verdict was given by the Chief Justice, Marshall has been widely hailed. All correct attempts were made by the Chief Justice to constituently defend the face of attacks on the Judiciary, as the head of a coequal branch of government. By asserting the court’s power to declare an act of congress unconstitutional if it is repugnant to the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court was given a paramount position as the true interpreter of the Constitution.

However, although the case set an abiding precedent on the judicial power of the court, it didn’t end the debate over the court’s purview over deciding the constitutionality of an executive or legislative action, which has continued for more than two centuries.

But the fact remains that the court has claimed and exercised the power of judicial review through most of U.S. history which continues to be in the application as of now. Moreover, the principle of Judicial Review fits well with the government’s commitment to checks and balances. Few jurists can argue with Marshall’s statement of principle near the end of his opinion, “that a law repugnant to the constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”


[1] 5 US 137 (1803).

Full Judgment: Available Here


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