Marbury v. Madison

Supreme Court Case

Engraved portrait of President James Madison
James Madison was Secretary of State during the Marbury v. Madison case. Getty Images

Marbury v Madison is considered by many to be not just a landmark case for the Supreme Court, but rather the landmark case. The Court's decision was delivered in 1803 and continues to be invoked when cases involve the question of judicial review. It also marked the beginning of the Supreme Court's rise in power to a position equal to that of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. In short, it was the first time the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional. 

Fast Facts: Marbury v. Madison

Case Argued: February 11, 1803

Decision Issued: February 24, 1803

Petitioner: William Marbury

Respondent: James Madison, Secretary of State

Key Questions: Was President Thomas Jefferson within his rights to direct his Secretary of State James Madison to withhold a judiciary commission from William Marbury who'd been appointed by his predecessor, John Adams?

Unanimous Decision: Justices Marshall, Paterson, Chase, and Washington

Ruling: Though Marbury was entitled to his commission, the Court was unable to grant it because Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with Article III Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and was therefore null and void.

Background of Marbury v. Madison

In the weeks after the Federalist president John Adams lost his bid for reelection to Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the Federalist Congress increased the number of circuit courts. Adams placed Federalist judges in these new positions. However, several of these 'Midnight' appointments were not delivered before Jefferson took office, and Jefferson promptly stopped their delivery as President. William Marbury was one of the justices who was expecting an appointment that had been withheld. Marbury filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to issue a writ of mandamus that would require Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the appointments. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, denied the request, citing part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 as unconstitutional.

Marshall's Decision

On the surface, Marbury v. Madison was not a particularly important case, involving the appointment of one Federalist judge among many recently commissioned. But Chief Justice Marshall (who had served as Secretary of State under Adams and was not necessarily a supporter of Jefferson) saw the case as an opportunity to assert the power of the judicial branch. If he could show that a congressional act was unconstitutional, he could position the Court as the supreme interpreter of the Constitution. And that's just what he did.

The Court's decision actually declared that Marbury had a right to his appointment and that Jefferson had violated the law by ordering secretary Madison to withhold Marbury's commission. But there was another question to answer: Whether or not the Court had the right to issue a writ of mandamus to secretary Madison. The Judiciary Act of 1789 presumably granted the Court the power to issue a writ, but Marshall argued that the Act, in this case, was unconstitutional. He declared that under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, the Court did not have "original jurisdiction" in this case, and therefore the Court did not have the power to issue a writ of mandamus.  

Significance of Marbury v. Madison

This historic court case established the concept of Judicial Review, the ability of the Judiciary Branch to declare a law unconstitutional. This case brought the judicial branch of the government on a more even power basis with the legislative and executive branches. The Founding Fathers expected the branches of government to act as checks and balances on one another. The historic court case Marbury v. Madison accomplished this end, thereby setting the precedent for numerous historic decisions in the future.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Marbury v. Madison." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Marbury v. Madison. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Marbury v. Madison." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).