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
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
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
Does Marbury deserve the
Yes. A commission is valid
when signed. This was a 5 year 'employment contract', not an at-will
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.