Marbury v. Madison
5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)

  • President Adams wrote out a commission to Marbury to make him a Federal judge.
  • Before the commission could be delivered, Adams' term ended and Jefferson became the President. Jefferson's Secretary of State (Madison) refused to honor the commission, saying it wasn't valid because it hadn't been delivered in time.
    • btw, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, was the Secretary of State at the time the commissions were signed, and so he was the one responsible for not delivering the commissions in the first place!
      • ...and yet he didn't recuse himself...
  • Marbury went straight to the US Supreme Court and sued to make them deliver a writ of mandamus requiring the Secretary of State to honor the commission.
    • Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the US Supreme Court original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus.
      • Original jurisdiction says that you can go straight to that court. For most things, you have to sue in a district court first, then, if you lose, appeal that decision to the US Supreme Court.
    • A writ of mandamus is an official order from a court telling someone to do something.
  • The US Supreme Court decided three issues:
    • Does Marbury deserve the commission?
      • Yes. A commission is valid when signed. This was a 5 year 'employment contract', not an at-will position.
      • Jefferson unsuccessfully argued that, under the old English Common Law, you don't actually get something until it has been delivered.
        • For example, a symbolic gesture called an enfeoffment was often required to transfer land.
    • Does the law offer him a remedy?
      • Yes. If a right exists, there must be a law that can offer a remedy, otherwise what's the point of having laws?
    • Is a writ of mandamus the correct remedy?
      • Yes, but...
      • The President has a discretionary role for things that are totally political, so the question is whether the position is a political appointment?
        • If it is not a political appointment, then the judiciary can weigh in on the issue.
        • If it is a political appointment then the political question doctrine applies and the judiciary cannot rule on it.
        • In this case, the Court found that withholding the delivery of the commission is not a discretionary political act, it's a mechanical act that is part of the normal duties of the office, so a writ of mandamus is the proper remedy.
          • This established that the Executive Branch is subject to the rule of law as interpreted by the judiciary!
            • Although at this point it was just dictum. It isn't until 1952 when there was an actual ruling on this point.
  • Despite the fact that the Court seemed to agree that Marbury was in the right, they ruled against him, because they found that they didn't have the power to hear the case.
    • Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 established the court system and gave the Supreme Court the original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus.
      • Although, to be honest, the Judiciary Act of 1789 should be read to say that the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction in mandamus cases. Most legal scholars feel that the Supreme Court misinterpreted the law. Section 13 talks about the Supreme Court's Appellate jurisdiction, so it's wrong to read that it gives original jurisdiction.
    • However, Article III of the Constitution says that the Supreme Court will have original jurisdiction only in cases "affecting ambassadors, other public ministers, consuls, and those in which the state is a party". In all other cases, the Supreme Court only acts as an appellate court to 'inferior courts'.
      • Article III is talking about representatives of foreign governments, not US Ambassadors and Ministers.
      • Article III also has an exceptions clause which states, "...with such exceptions and under such regulations as Congress shall make." This can certainly be interpreted to mean that the Judiciary Act of 1789 augments Article III, as opposed to being in conflict with it.
    • Therefore, the Court found that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicts with the Constitution.
    • The Court found that in cases of confliction, the Constitution, by right of it's being the basis for the entire government must take precedence. It is superior, paramount, and is unchangeable by ordinary means.
      • Article VI could be read to show that the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land (aka the Supremacy Clause). Or, you can read it to just say that all laws passed previous to the Constitution no longer count.
      • The Constitution is very clear on how it is to be changed (and it's purposefully hard). If Congress can unofficially change the Constitution through normal transitive legislative means, then what's the point of making it so hard to officially change the Constitution?
    • The Court found that they have a duty to say what the law is. Therefore, the Supreme Court has the right to say that a law enacted by Congress (or anybody else) is invalid, if it conflicts with the Constitution. The judicial power of the US is extended to all cases arising under the Constitution.
      • Since the Constitution is defined to be a supreme law, somebody has to take on the duty of striking down laws that conflict with the Constitution. And if that isn't the Supreme Court, then who? Court says, "Given the structure of the government, there must be someone whose job it is to say the legislature has done wrong... that power shall flow to the judiciary."
  • So basically, the Court found that they were being asked to uphold two laws that were in conflict, one saying that they could issue a writ of mandamus and one saying they couldn't. Since the Constitution trumps any law Congress makes, the Court is forced to follow the Constitution and find that the conflicting law is not applicable (aka unconstitutional).
    • So they told Marbury that even though he deserved a writ of mandamus they had no power to grant one.
      • Ironically, the ruling significantly increased the power of the Supreme Court by ruling Congress had no right to increase their powers!
  • This case established that Article III of the Constitution is the maximum jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Congress can't give them more powers by just passing a law.
    • They would have to pass a Constitutional amendment in order to give the judiciary more powers.
  • This case also established that the Supreme Court has authority for judicial review of legislative acts.
    • This ruling gave one supposedly co-equal branch of government oversight over another co-equal branch of government!
    • Nowhere in the actual Constitution does it give the Supreme Court the power to overturn laws. They just decided that they had the power all by themselves.
      • Notice that this ruling does not cite a single ruling or common law source. The entire ruling was made up by Marshall de novo.
  • This decision was partially made based on political issues, not legal ones. If the Court had issued a writ of mandamus, President Jefferson would most likely have defied it. This would have led to a Constitutional Crisis. By declaring the law unconstitutional, Justice Marshall avoided a major issue that would have really strained the fragile and newly formed government.
  • Btw, Supreme Court did not rule another law unconstitutional until 1857.