Marbury v. Madison

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.


The Constitution of the United States establishes certain limits not to be transcended by the different departments of the government. The powers of the legislature are defined, and limited ,and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the Constitution is written. 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? The distinction, between a government with limited and unlimited powers, is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the Constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it ,or, that the legislature may alter the Constitution by an ordinary act.

Brief Fact Summary:

The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) has constitutional authority to review executive actions and legislative acts. The Supreme Court has limited jurisdiction, the bounds of which are set by the United States Constitution (Constitution), which may not be enlarged by the Congress.

Case Commentary:

The Supreme Court uses its own understanding of the Constitution in reviewing the legitimacy of acts by other branches of the government, even though this power is not apparent from the plain text of the document. This case established the legitimacy of judicial review as well as the primacy of the Constitution over any other source of law. Many legal scholars of both Marshall’s period and the contemporary era found the opinion’s logic strained, basing a sweeping conclusion on relatively little textual support. Still, the concept of judicial review has long been accepted without challenge. Unfortunately for Marbury, he never received his appointment as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, merely because the commission was not delivered before Adams left office.


The Marbury v. Madison Decision The Court noted that the appointment of Marbury to the role of justice of the peace by the President created a “vested legal right” in Marbury to receive the office of justice of the peace even before the commission was delivered to him. It went on to detail how the signing of the Marbury’s commission by the President effectively constituted an appointment and how the signing of the commission by the President created a vested, exclusive right in Marbury to accept or reject the appointment. The Court described the principle that the appointment of an officer who is not removable at will by the President is irrevocable and “cannot be annulled”. The Court concluded that the courts are empowered to provide remedies to citizens whose “vested rights” have been violated. The Court also noted that “the judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the constitution” and, further, asserted that it was a “judicial duty” to, when the constitution and an enacted law conflict, decide which rule applies to a particular case. Based on the powers granted to the Court through the Constitution, the Court decided that the power of “judicial review” allowed it to examine the constitutionality of legislation and to determine when the violation of vested rights is the result of a law being unconstitutional (The Court concluded that “the judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the constitution” and “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is”). It held that that the part of the legislation—the Judiciary Act of 1789—which established the federal courts and allowed the courts to issue writs of mandamus to officers of the United States allowed the courts to go beyond the powers reserved for them in the Constitution by engaging in an act that constitutes an “original legal action” against an “officer of the United States”. Such original jurisdiction was not explicitly established for the courts by the Constitution. In that way, the Court found that that portion of the Act unconstitutional.