Marbury v. Madison

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The seminal case in American law, Marbury v. Madison established the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate on constitutional grounds laws enacted by Congress. The case is found in Cranch (the court reporter of decisions) volume one at page 137 (1803). Cranch is the first volume of cases devoted only to Supreme Court cases.

John Adams appointed William Marbury to a position as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia less than a week before the end of his term, one of 42 justices named on March 2, 1801 and confirmed by the Senate on March 3, 1801, Adams's last day in office. Marbury's commission, as well as that of others who were part of the lawsuit, was signed by Adams and, ironically, acting Secretary of State John Marshall; however, Jefferson treated them as null and void because of a technicality - they had not been delivered by day's end. Shortly therafter, Marshall, who had been sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on February 4, 1801 but had continued to act as Secretary of State, swore in Jefferson as President. As the case later developed, Marshall's brother James swore by affidavit of the existence of certain of these commissions, including those that came before his Chief Justice brother.

The court via Marshall held that Marbury had a valid commission, good for five years. The question was whether the law gave him a remedy. The answer to that question was yes, because the refusal to deliver his commission to Marbury violated his right for which there had to be a remedy. The question then shifted to whether Marbury was entitled to that remedy.

In this case, Marbury brought the lawsuit directly in the Supreme Court, under the Judiciary Act of 1789. The requested remedy was an order directed against Madison, the new Secretary of State and would require him (known as a writ of mandamus) to transmit the commission to Marbury.

In analyzing the case, Marshall (and the court) examined the Judiciary Act of 1789, which stated that the Supreme Court could "issue writes of mandamus in any persons holding office under the authority of the United States." The Constitution, the Supreme Court held, confined its original jurisdiction - the ability to hear cases in the first instance - to "all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state be a party. In all other cases the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction."

The court held that Congress had no power to alter their original jurisdiction in this way and found unconstituional the Judiciary Act of 1789. The opinion was particularly brilliant because it invalidated an act of Congress yet avoided a direct confrontation with the President because it did not have jurisdiction over the case and thus could not order the Secreatry of State to deliver those commissions.