Marbury v. Madison
The 1803 Marbury v. Madison case resulted in the most important Supreme Court decision in history. The court’s ruling established the power of judicial review, solidified the Constitutional system of checks and balances, strengthened the power of the federal government, and made the Judiciary an equal partner with the Legislative and Executive branches of government.
In the Election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and his anti-federalist Republican party defeated the incumbent John Adams and the Federalist party. The Republicans also won a majority in Congress. In an effort to keep at least one branch of the government under Federalist control before the Republicans took office, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 in a lame-duck session. The bill reformed a 1789 statute and created many new judgeships. Adams nominated judges and the Senate confirmed them. Adams then stayed up until long after midnight on March 3, 1801, his last full day in office, signing commissions that put fifty-nine loyal Federalists in office. These were the so-called "midnight judges."
In the final weeks before Jefferson took office, John Marshall was Secretary of State and Chief Justice simultaneously. As Secretary of State, he had the task of delivering these commissions. In the press of business before Adams left office he delivered all but seventeen. Marshall left these on his desk for the incoming Secretary, James Madison, to deliver. Outraged by Adams’ appointments, Jefferson ordered Madison not to deliver the commissions. Four of the uncommissioned justices of the peace, including William Marbury, sought a writ of mandamus, or order directing Madison to deliver the commissions. Madison disregarded the preliminary order by Marshall to deliver the commissions. Next, Congress, using its authority under the Constitution to make "regulations" for the federal court, shut down the Supreme Court for a year.
Today, the actual decision is unimportant (Asch 29). Even at the time that the case was decided it was insignificant because Marbury’s term as justice would have ended by the time the Court was ready to consider it. But this did not prevent Marshall from using the case to suit his purposes.
Marshall faced quite a dilemma with this decision. In the first place, Marshall’s own failure to deliver the commissions had caused the situation. (At this point, there were no formal rules requiring judges to disqualify themselves in cases where they were personally involved.) If Marshall granted Marbury’s request for a writ of mandamus, Jefferson and Madison could ignore the writ because the Court seemed so weak. If he denied the request, the Supreme Court would be left a "helpless victim of presidential or congressional whim" (Agresto 73). Marshall "disposed of the problem by a masterly combination of political adroitness and legal astuteness" (Asch 30).
First, Marshall daringly rebuked Jefferson and Madison for not delivering the commissions. He asserted that all the judges were plainly entitled to their commissions. But then, less loudly, he held that the court did not have the power to issue writs of mandamus and therefore could not order the delivery of the commissions. The Court maintained that the portion of the 1789 Judiciary Act that gave the Court the power to issue writs of mandamus violated the Constitution, which did not give such a power. Therefore the act was null and void. "Marshall used a question that was moot - the invalidation of a federalist law (not Republican), a petty procedural - to establish for all time the authority of the Supreme Court to declare laws of Congress void when they are contrary to the Constitution" (Asch 30).
Marshall’s establishment of judicial review had far-ranging effects. Judicial review completed the system of checks and balances that was a vital component of the Constitution. The Legislative branch, divided into two houses, has a check on each side. The Executive has the veto to check the Legislative, while Congress can balance out that check with the override, or, in extreme circumstances, with impeachment. The system of separation of powers implied that each branch, "as Madison remarked, had ‘the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist the encroachments of the others.’" But without judicial review, what power does the Judiciary have? With Marshall’s establishment of review, the Supreme Court could check both the Executive and the Legislative.
Marshall’s method of argument is worth further analysis. Agresto says this