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Marbury v. Madison, 1803 Landmark cases

Marbury v Madison, 1803 (Landmark Supreme Court Cases)


In the series of the landmark cases decided by Supreme Court, the first one is Marbury v Madison, 1803. It was a complicated case and the first where Supreme Court applied its power to judicial review. Judicial Review refers to the power of US Courts that they can use to declare the acts in conflict with the US constitution void. However, this case was important for another reason too. It was this case that brought Supreme Court on par with the Congress and the executive in terms of its role in the government. It emphasized the powers granted to the Supreme Court by the US Constitution. The case also established the US Supreme Court’s role as the US constitution’s guardian. Chief Justice John Marshall clearly mentioned restating article VI that the constitution was the ‘supreme law of the land’.


The two parties in this case were William Marbury and James Madison. William Marbury was one of the justices of peace appointed by the outgoing president John Adams. James Madison was the new secretary of state for the newly established Thomas Jefferson government. Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican party had defeated the Federalist party of John Adams in the election of 1800. The outgoing president Adams during the last days of his presidency had appointed several ‘Justices of Peace’ for the Columbia district. Senate had approved their commissions and the outgoing president himself had signed them with the official seal of the government on them. However, the commissions were not delivered and the new president Jefferson ordered his secretary of state to not to deliver them. William Marbury was one of the appointed justices of peace. He petitioned the US Supreme court for a ‘writ of mandamus’ (legal order) that Madison show the cause behind the non payment of the commission.


Chief Justice Marshall addressed three very important questions in his resolution of the case. These questions were:

  • If Marbury had a right to the writ for which he petitioned.
  • Whether the courts were permitted by the law to grant him such a writ.
  • If such a writ could be issued by the Supreme Court.

Regarding the first question, Chief Justice clarified that Marbury had been duly appointed as per the procedures of law and therefore held the right to writ. Second, since he held the right to writ, the law was obliged to provide him with a  remedy. Moreover, the Chief Justice added that it was the  courts’ responsibility that they protect the individuals’ rights even against the US president. The statement by the Chief Justice was highly controversial and left the president displeased.

Addressing the third question, the Chief Justice addressed the issue of judicial review. The court was granted the power to issue such writs by Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Chief Justice stated that this section of the Act was inconsistent with the constitution and therefore not valid. Supreme Court is primarily an appellate court. However, the section 2 of the article 3 in the constitution provides the Supreme Court with original jurisdiction in cases that involved foreign public ministers, ambassadors as well as consuls or those involving two states. Congress was exceeding its authority by including cases like Marbury’s. Marshall clearly stated that where the actions of the Congress are in conflict with the Constitution, the court’s duty is to uphold the constitution.


Chief Justice Marshall’s decision, denied Marbury his commission. While the decision of the court pleased the president, it was the Chief Justice’s statement regarding the constitutionality of Congress’ actions which left him feeling disappointed. With this decision, the Supreme Court’s power to judge the constitutionality of the Congress’ actions was duly asserted.  Marshall had clarified in his decision that a law that was in conflict with the Constitution was void. His decision had established the role of the Supreme Court in the government. The US Supreme court was recognized as having the power of reviewing the constitutionality of the Congress’ acts and to judge whether they were in accordance with the constitution. In this way while in the short term this decision meant denying the court its authority, in the long term it established the court in its new and more important role in the government.


Sources: https://www.history.com/topics/marbury-v-madison