Marbury v. Madison

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Marbury v. Madison

Supreme Court of the United States

Decided February 24, 1803
Full case name: William Marbury v. James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States
Citations: 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137; 2 L. Ed. 60; 1803 U.S. LEXIS 352
Prior history: Original action filed in U.S. Supreme Court; order to show cause why writ of mandamus should not issue, December, 1801
Subsequent history: none
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 can not pass laws that are contrary to the Constitution, and it is the role of the federal courts to interpret what the Constitution permits.
Court membership
Chief Justice John Marshall
Associate Justices William Cushing, William Paterson, Samuel Chase, Bushrod Washington, Alfred Moore
Case opinions
Majority by: Marshall
Joined by: Paterson, Chase, Washington
Cushing and Moore did not participate in the consideration or decision of the case
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Art. I, III; Judiciary Act of 1789 § 13

Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803) is a landmark case in United States law where in the U.S. Supreme Court established judicial review as a legitimate power of the Court on constitutional grounds. The Court ruled that it had the power to declare a statute void that it considered repugnant to the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury, legally established the judiciary—and in particular, the Supreme Court—as an equal partner among the three branches of the American federal government.


Background of the case

In the Presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, becoming the third U.S. President. Although the election was decided on February 17, 1801, Jefferson did not take office until March 4, 1801. Until that time, Adams and the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress were still in power. Congress passed a new Judiciary Act, creating a number of new courts to be controlled by Federalists.

On March 2, Adams appointed 42 Federalists to these courts while sitting as a lame duck less than a week before the end of his term. The following day, on March 3, the judges were approved by the Senate. One of these "Midnight Judges" was William Marbury, appointed to a position as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. At noon, Adams left office and Jefferson was inaugurated as President.

Marbury's commission, as well as that of others who were part of the lawsuit, was signed by Adams and John Marshall, his Secretary of State. As a complication of matters, Marshall had been appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on February 4, but had continued to act as Secretary of State until Jefferson was inaugurated. On March 3, Marshall became Chief Justice, and swore in Jefferson.

Jefferson treated as void 25 of the 42 commissions approved on Inauguration Day, including Marbury's, because they had not been officially delivered by day's end; some scholars have suggested that it was actually a cost-saving measure by cutting judicial salaries. Jefferson appointed James Madison as the new Secretary, and ordered him not to deliver the Marbury commission.

At this point in the Country's history, the Supreme Court had been very limited in its exercise of its powers. Chief Justice Marshall knew that if the Court decided for Marbury, Jefferson would almost certainly ignore the decision—a result that would further erode the court's authority. Such a result arguably occurred about 30 years later when Marshall ruled in Worcester v. Georgia, and President Andrew Jackson refused to compel the state of Georgia to abide by the decision. He is famously supposed to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it."

Though this is an influential interpretation of Marbury, some scholars disagree with the notion that Marshall was afraid of a confrontation between the Executive and Judicial branches.1 First, in Marbury itself, Marshall took a bold move against the Executive branch by issuing a show cause order to James Madison. Second, only a few years after Marbury was decided, Marshall subpoenaed Jefferson himself in the Burr treason case. Lastly, there is evidence within the Marbury opinion itself that indicates Marshall would have expected compliance by the President with a contrary ruling ("[the king] never fails to comply with the judgment of his court.").2

Although Marbury v. Madison was the first case in which the U.S. Supreme Court exercised the power of judicial review, it was not a power that the Court initially exercised with frequency. It was not until Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857 that the Supreme Court invalidated another act of Congress. However, the Court treated the decision with deference: between 1804 and 1894, Marbury was cited in 49 separate opinions in the United States Supreme Court. Of these, 24 citations extend or reiterate Marbury's jurisdictional holding.

Status of the judicial power before Marbury

The power of judicial review is often thought to have been created in Marbury, but it is older. The idea that courts could nullify statutes probably has its roots in Chief Justice Edward Coke's 1610 opinion in Dr. Bonham’s Case, 8 Co. Rep. 107a. That decision arose under a statute of Parliament enabling the London College of Physicians to levy fines against anyone who violated their rules. The College accused a doctor of practice without their license and fined him accordingly. Coke found that their statutory powers violated “common right or reason” because “no person should be a judge in his own case.” The idea that courts could declare statutes void waxed and then waned in England, but it was well known in the American colonies and in the bars of young states, where Coke's books were very influential. The doctrine was specifically enshrined in some state constitutions, and by 1803 it had been employed in both state courts and federal courts in actions dealing with state statutes. (See Whittington v. Polk, 1 H. & J. 236 (Md.Gen. 1802) (Samuel Chase, J.); State v. Parkhurst, 9 N.J.L. 427 (N.J. 1802); Respublica v. Duquet Shippen, 2 Yeates 493 (Pa. 1799); Williams Lindsay v. East Bay Street Com’rs, 2 Bay (S.C.L.) 38 S.C.Const.App. 1796)(Thomas Waties, J.).; Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dallas (3 U.S.) 199 (1796); Calder v. Bull, 3 Dallas (3 U.S.) 386 (1798); Cooper v. Telfair, 4 Dallas (4 U.S.) 14 (1800); Vanhorne’s Lessee v. Dorrance, 28 F. Cas. 1012, 2 Dallas (2 U.S.) 304; 1 L. Ed. 391; C. Pa. 1795).)6

Some legal scholars argue that the concept of judicial review and the legal basis for it predate the case, and that Marbury merely formalized it. For example, Saikrishna Prakash and John Yoo argue that during the ratification of the Constitution, "[N]o scholar to date has identified even one participant in the ratification fight who argued that the Constitution did not authorize judicial review of federal statutes. This silence in the face of the numerous comments on the other side is revealing."7

It should be noted that when some Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats launched attacks on the Court, they did so with a belief that congressional or presidential interpretations of the Constitution were entitled to as much respect as those of the Court.

Relevant law

U.S. Const. art. III, § 2

"In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases [within the judicial power of the United States], the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

Judiciary Act of 1789, § 13

"The Supreme Court shall also have appellate jursidiction from the circuit courts and courts of the several states, in the cases herein after provided for; and shall have power to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts...and writs of any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States."

The issue

There are two ways the Supreme Court can hear a case: (1) filing directly in the Supreme Court; or (2) filing in some lower court, such as a district court, and appealing all the way up to the Supreme Court. The first is an exercise of the Court's original jurisdiction; the second is appellate jurisdiction.

Because Marbury filed his petition for the writ of mandamus directly in the Supreme Court, the Court needed to be able to exercise original jurisdiction over the case in order to have the power to hear it. However, the Constitution specifically enumerates in Art. III what types of cases the Supreme Court can hear under its original jurisdiction. The problem is that everyone agrees that Marbury's case doesn't fit under any of those types of cases.

Marbury's argument is that in the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress granted the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over petitions for writs of mandamus. This raises several issues that Marshall has to address:

  • Does Art. III of the Constitution create a "floor" for original jurisdiction, that Congress can add to, or does it create an exhaustive list that Congress can't modify at all?
  • If Art. III's original jurisdiction is an exhaustive list, but Congress tries to modify it anyway, who wins that conflict, Congress or the Constitution? And, more importantly, who is supposed to decide who wins? In his answer to this last question, Marshall creates the notion of judicial review.

The decision

The decision was rendered on February 24, 1803, in a unanimous 4-0 decision.3 Chief Justice Marshall wrote the opinion of the court. Marshall presents the case as raising three distinct questions:

  1. Did Marbury have a right to the appointment?
  2. Do the laws of the country give Marbury a legal remedy?
  3. Is asking the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus the correct legal remedy?

Marshall quickly answers the first two questions affirmatively. Marshall finds that the failure to deliver the commission was "violative of a vested legal right."

In deciding whether Marbury has a remedy, Marshall states "The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right." One of the key legal principles established by Marbury is the notion that for every legal right, there must be a legal remedy. Marshall next describes two distinct types of Executive actions: political actions where the official can exercise discretion, and purely ministerial functions where the official is legally required to do something. Marshall finds that delivering the appointment to Marbury was a purely ministerial function required by law, and therefore the law provides him a remedy.

Note: It has become the tradition in U.S. judicial opinions that issues of jurisdiction are addressed first. If a court does not have the power to hear a case, it will not issue dicta. Chief Justice Marshall, however, did not address jurisdictional issues until addressing the first two questions presented above.

In analyzing the third question, Marshall first examines the Judiciary Act and determines that the Act purports to give the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over writs of mandamus. Marshall then looks to Art. III of the Constitution, which defines the Supreme Court's original and appellate jurisdictions (see Relevant Law above). Everyone agrees that Art. III enumerates certain cases over which the Supreme Court may exercise original jurisdiction, and Marbury's case does not fit under any of them. Marbury argues, however, that the Constitution was only intended to set a floor for original jurisdiction that Congress could add to. Marshall disagrees and holds that Congress does not have the power to modify the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction. Consequently, Marshall finds that the Constitution and the Judiciary Act conflict.

This conflict raises the important question of what happens when an Act of Congress conflicts with the Constitution. Marshall answers that Acts of Congress that conflict with the Constitution are not law and the Courts are bound instead to follow the Constitution, creating the principle of judicial review. In support of this position Marshall looks to the nature of the written Constitution--there would be no point of having a written Constitution if the government could just ignore it. "To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?"4 Marshall also argues that the very nature of the judicial function requires the Courts to make this determination. Since it is the Court's duty to decide cases, the Courts have to be able to decide what law applies to each case. Therefore, if two laws conflict with each other, the Court must decide which law applies.5 Finally, Marshall points to the judge's oath requiring them to uphold the Constitution, and to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which lists the "Constitution" before the "laws of the United States."

The opinion's brilliance lies in the way it simultaneously asserted the Court's power to hold acts of Congress unconstitutional and yet avoided a direct confrontation with the President. By giving up the power of original jurisdiction in cases not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, it seized the power of judicial review. Politically, Jefferson was forced into a corner: either agree with the ruling and use it as a justification to continue denying the Midnight Judges their commissions, or disagree with the very ruling that legitimized his action. However, there is some debate about whether Marshall was actually trying to avoid direct conflict with the President, see notes 1,2 and accompanying text.


Note 1: See Louise Weinberg, OUR MARBURY, 89 Va. L. Rev. 1235 (2003). Note 2: See Weinberg, 89 Va. L. Rev., at 1260-97 for a detailed discussion of these and other arguments. Note 3: Due to illness, Justices William Cushing and Alfred Moore did not sit for oral argument or participate in the Court's decision. Note 4: 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) at 176. Note 5: Id. at 177. Note 6: George Fletcher and Steve Sheppard, American Law in Global Perspective: The Basics 132-34(Oxford University Press, 2004) (ISBN 0195167236). Note 7: Yoo and Prakash, "The Origins of Judicial Review," University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 69, Summer 2003

References and further reading

  • Marbury v. Madison. [1] (

The best single introduction to the case is *Nelson, William E. Marbury v. Madison: The Origins and Legacy of Judicial Review. University Press of Kansas: 2000. ISBN 0700610626. *Clinton, Robert Lowry. Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review. University Press of Kansas: 1991. ISBN 0700605177 presents a contrarian reading of the case, claiming that it is a mistake to read the case as claiming a judicial power to tell the President or Congress what they can or cannot do under the Constitution. The conventional reading of Marbury interprets it as granting a much broader scope of judicial authority. *Irons, Peter. A People's History of the Supreme Court, pp 104-07. Penguin Books: 1999. ISBN 0140292012. See also Newmyer, R. Kent, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court Louisiana State University Press: 2001.

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