Marbury v. Madison

What happened?

In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) defeated incumbent John Adams (Federalist).  In the lame duck session after the election but before Jefferson took office, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which modified the JA of 1789 and expanded the number of circuit courts and allowed the President to appoint the new judges and justices of the peace.  Pres. Adams, on his last day in office, appointed 16 new Federalist judges and 48 Federalist justices of the peace.  To become effective, all the new appointees had to receive the commission papers delivered to them by the Sec. of State.  The new Sec. of State, James Madison, refused to deliver the commissions, so one of the appointees, William Marbury, petitioned the Supreme Court to force Madison to deliver the documents.

What did the Court decide?

The Court answered a few questions: 1) Does Marbury have a right to his commission?  Yes.  2) Does Marbury have a right to a remedy under US law?  Yes.  3) Does the Supreme Court have the authority to grant such a remedy?  Yes, but it depends.  If a law conflicts with the Constitution then that law is invalid.  By that declaration, Chief Justice John Marshall affirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and judges as the arbiters of the Constitution.  This is now known as the doctrine of judicial review. The Court held that an “act of the legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.”

Why is it important?

The case set the framework for the modern judiciary and its role in the separation of powers.  The Supreme Court can now review acts of Congress and decide whether or not they are allowed under the Constitution, which greatly expands the Court’s power, authority, and reach.

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