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Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison 5 US 137 1803 is the seminal case in American law which
established the power of the Supreme Court, on constitutional grounds, to
invalidate laws enacted by Congress. The case is found in Cranch (the court
reporter of decisions) volume one at page 137 (1803). Cranch is the first
volume of cases devoted only to Supreme Court cases.

Background

Marbury is such an important case in American law precisely because it first
truly revealed how the judiciary, and in particular, the Supreme Court,
works as an equal partner among the three branches of American government.
In essence, the Court was able to significantly affect and even alter
decisions made by the executive and legislative branches. In this sense,
that it is the first to have such an effect, there is little background in
American law for it.

The Case

John Adams, the second President of the United States (1797-1801) had
appointed William Marbury to a position as Justice of the Peace in the
District of Columbia less than a week before the end of his term. He was one
of 42 justices named on 2 March 1801 and confirmed by the Senate on 3 March
1801, Adams's last day in office. Marbury's commission, as well as that of
others who were part of the lawsuit, was signed by Adams and, ironically,
acting Secretary of State John Marshall; however, the new President, Thomas
Jefferson (1801-1809), treated them as null and void because of a
technicality - they had not been delivered by day's end. Shortly thereafter,
Marshall, who had been sworn in as Chief Justice of the United States on 4
February 1801 but had continued to act as Secretary of State, swore in
Jefferson as President. As the case later developed, Marshall's brother
James swore by affidavit of the existence of certain of these commissions,
including those that came before his Chief Justice brother.

The court via Marshall held that Marbury had a valid commission, good for
five years. The question was whether the law gave him a remedy. The answer
to that question was yes, because the refusal to deliver his commission to
Marbury violated his right for which there had to be a remedy. The question
then shifted to whether Marbury was entitled to that remedy.

In this case, Marbury brought the lawsuit directly in the Supreme Court,
under the Judiciary Act of 1789. The requested remedy was an order directed
against James Madison, the new Secretary of State and would require him
(known as a writ of mandamus) to transmit the commission to Marbury.

The Decision

In analyzing the case, Marshall (and the court) examined the Judiciary Act
of 1789, which stated that the Supreme Court could "issue writes of mandamus
in cases...to any persons holding office under the authority of the United
States." The Constitution, the Supreme Court held, confined its original
jurisdiction - the ability to hear cases in the first instance - to "all
cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those
in which a state be a party. In all other cases the Supreme Court shall have
appellate jurisdiction."

The Court, on 24 February 1803, in a unanimous, 6-0 decision, held that
Congress had no power to alter their original jurisdiction in this way and
found unconstitutional the Judiciary Act of 1789. The opinion was
particularly brilliant because it invalidated an act of Congress yet avoided
a direct confrontation with the President because it did not have
jurisdiction over the case and thus could not order the Secretary of State
to deliver those commissions.

The case established the court's ability to use the tool of judicial review
in finding that a staute of action taken by the government is
unconstitutional. There is no doubt that the entire judicial system would be
helpless without this fundamental ability, and Justice Marshall, although
highly criticized for the forum chosen to establish this invaluable tool, in
many ways, assured the continuation of America. A judicial system whose sole
function is to apply the law without question is not on the same level as a
legislature that can make law that goes virtually unchecked. Justice
Marshall realized that without judicial review, the courts have no
independence from the remaining two branches of government. With the
congress deciding the extent of what was constitutional, the contraints
placed on the power of the federal government were self imposed and
unenforceable.
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