Marbury vs. Madison: A case for Judicial Review

            The United States Supreme Court, in its 1803 decision in the case of Marbury vs. Madison, firmly established the doctrine of judicial review (Guidance Associates). As framed in the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court’s duties lay in the interpretation and definiton of the laws (Crime Scene Forensics). In essence, the power of the Court to exercise its power of judicial review simply means the Court can review official acts of the other two branches of the government to determine if their acts did not violate the Constitution (Encarta). In even shorter terms, the Supreme Court ruled that it was the final authority on the interpretation of the Constitution (Multi Educator).

History of the Case

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            The case began in the midst of a change of administrations in the United States (Crime Forensics). Up to the time before 1800, the nation was under the control of the Federalist party (Crime Forensics). In the elections of 1800, the Federalists lost control over the White House and both houses of Congress (Multi Educator). In what is considered their final act as the majority party in Congess, the Federalists passed the Judiciary Act of 1801(Multi Educator). The Act increased the number of circuit courts and judgeships in the country, making 6 new courts and 16 positions for judges (Multi Educator).

            John Adams would soon hand over the reins of the government to the incoming President, Thomas Jefferson (Crime Scene). As the time drew for the Federalists to hand over power to the incoming Republicans, Adams signed the Judicary Act, placing Federalist judges on the new benches (Martin Kelly). But the appointments of the “midnight” judges were not sent out yet before Jefferson took over,  so he ordered that the Secretary of State, James Madison, stop the delivery of the “midnight” commissions (Kelly). One of the intended beneficiaries of the “midnight” appointments was Maryland banker and political figure William Marbury (Kelly).

The battle begins

            Marbury was supposed to be appointed Justice of the Peace for the newly craeted District of Columbia (Encarta). Adams, before he left political office, signed two laws that set the foundations for the case (Encarta). The first law is the aforementioned 1801 Judiciary Act, while the second created the District of Columbia (Encarta). The case began as the new Secretary of State, Madison, on orders of the Chief Executive, refused to hand over the commissions to Marbury and three others (Encarta).

            When Madison failed to hand over the commisions, which Jefferson had voided upon taking office (Crime Scene), Marbury went to the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall (Crime Scene). Marbury sued Madison for him to hand over the commissions, which in turn would render the acts of Adams as official (Crime Scene). What is ironic that Justice Marshall was the person who failed to deliver the signed commissions to Marbury when he turned over his former office as Secretary of State to the incoming Madison (Crime Scenes). Marbury asked the High Court to issue a writ of mandamus, to compel Madison to hand over his Commssion (Crime Scenes).

            The case fell into the hands of the man who failed to turn over the disputed commssion, John Marshall (Crime Scenes). After declining an initial appointment to the High Court bench in 1798, he accepted the appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, rendering service as both Chief Justice and Secretary of State under John Adams (Kelly). The Marshall court was stuck with a problem, concerning the relations hip between the two other branches of government, the executive branch in particular (Guidance Associates). If the Court finds in favor of Marbury, Jefferson would just simply ignore the ruling. If it sided with Jefferson, the impression is that the Court was powerless (Multi Educator).

            In either scenario, the Court would present an image of denying the supreme stature of the law (Find Law). In his ruling on the case, Marshall found a middle ground, where he could chide the camp of Jefferson and at the same time enhance the power of the Supreme Court (Find Law). When the Court finally convened, Madison did not bother to obey the Court’s orders, or even send a representative to the proceedings (Encarta). Marshall, the Federalist that he is, could have taken advantage of the situation and ruled for Marbury, since Madison did not offer any form of defense (Encarta).

            But Marshall held that if he did just that, then the Court would seem powerless and would humiliate the Court, as Madison would just ignore any order from Marshall (Encarta). Up to this time, the power of the Supreme Court was still to be tested, and the Judiciary was considered a weak entity among the three branches of government (Crime Scenes). In his ruling on the case, he rendered what is still considered one of the most stellar decisions in the Court’s history (Encarta). In it, he gave a brilliant decision by accomplishing three tasks (Encarta).

The birth of judicial review

            First, he chided Secretary Madison, and indirectly Jefferson, for the denial of Marbury’s commission. Second, he did not order anyone to act on anything, Madison, Jefferson or anyone else. Third, and probably the most important result of the decision, he founded the practice of the Court to declare an act as unconstitutional, thereby establishing the power of judicial review (Encarta). In coming to his decision, Marshall founded his opinion on three queries (Encarta).

            The first question revolved around the right of Marbury to receive the commission, if he was legally entitled to it (Encarta). The second states that if Marbury had a legal claim to the commission, was there a remedy in the law to address the failure ofn the delivery of the commission (Encarta)? And third, if there was such a relief mechanism in the law, would that constitute the issuance of the writ (Encarta). Marshall believed that Marbury did indeed a legal claim to the commission (Infoplease).

            But the law that the case was grounded upon and the foundation of the relief sought from the Court is unconstitutional as it conflicted with the third article of the Constitution (Infoplease). The conflict lies in that the power that was being asked of the Supreme Court was not given to it by the Constitution (Infoplease). Marshall did not consent to the act of denying Marbury his commission, but ruled the action sought was impossible to enforce (Hayden Lynch). Marshall ruled that the statute that allowed the High Court to force Madison to deliver the commissions was in cinflict with the Constitution (Lynch).

            In short, Marshall ruled against Marbury by virtue of a technicality (Multi Educator).

Marshall decided that the Judiciary Act that authorized the Supreme Court with the capacity to issue writs as conflicting with the 3rd article of the Constitution (Crime Scene). In effect, what Marshall was saying that the act itself made the Supreme Court exceed the actual powers bestowed upon it by the Constitution (Crime Scene).  In a nut shell, Marshall found a statute that made the Court itself to become unconstitutional (Crime Scene).

            By virtue of the Judiciary Act that bestowed on the Court additional powers, thus runs in conflict with the fundamental law, and thus is unconstitutional (Crime Scenes). So, in one sweep, Marshall was able to limit and at the same time enhance the powers of the High Court (Find Law). The Court was indeed limited by the case itself, but Marshall enhanced its power by ruling that the Court can declare an act by the other branches of government unconstitutional (Find Law). By this ruling, the Supreme Court also placed emphasis the supremacy of the Constitution as the preeminent law and the office of the Court as the final authority as to its interpretation (Find Law).

Significance of the case

            The most important contribution of the case was that it established the Supreme Court as an equal branch of government (Find Law). It upheld the authority of the Court’s right, capacity and the responsibilty of the judiciary to take down statutes that run counter to the Constitution (Encarta). In his opinion, Marshall also asserted the reason why the High Court should be given this right (Encarta). Marshall decided that the legislature had gone beyond  its mandate in giving the Court the capacity to give out mandamus writs as part of its present jurisdiction (Encarta).

             The Court ruled that a section of the 1789 Judicial Act conflicted with the fundamental law (National Park Service). The ruling established the right of the Supreme Court to conduct judicial reviews of acts by both executive and legislative branches of the government (Lynch).  The framers of the Constitution had drafted the Constitution with the intention that the Court will carry out the mandate instituting a system of fiscalizing the acts of the other two (Encarta). Not until 1857 would the Supreme Court declare another act of Congress as unconstitutional, and only in rare occasions (Melvin Urofsky). But since that decision, the Court has been in the forefront in expanding the rights of individuals (Urofsky).

Works Cited

Crime Scene Forensics. “Marbury vs. Madison (1803)”.


Find Law. “Marbury vs. Madison”.


Guidance Associates. “Supreme Court decsions that changed the nation: Marbury vs.     Madison”.


Infoplease. “Marbury vs. Madison”.


Kelly, Martin. “Marbury vs. Madison”.



Lynch, Hayden. “Marbury vs. Madison”.


MSN Encarta. “Marbury vs. Madison”.


National Park Service. “The Supreme Court renders an important decision”.



Urofsky, Melvin I. “Explanation and Background”.




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