The Case of Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison (1803) is a landmark case in U.S. law that laid the foundation for the exercise of judicial review under Article III of the Constitution. Its outcome helped define the boundary between the American government's constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches.
The case resulted from a petition to the Supreme Court by William Marbury, who President John Adams had appointed as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, but whose commission was not subsequently delivered. Marbury implored the Supreme Court to force Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the documents. The Court acknowledged that Madison's refusal to send forth the commission was both illegal and remediable. However, it deemed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which enabled Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court, to be unconstitutional. The petition was therefore denied.
The Judiciary Act of 1801
In the presidential election of 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent Federalist John Adams and became the third president of the United States. Although the election was decided on February 17, 1801, Jefferson did not take office until March 4, 1801, leaving outgoing president Adams and the predominantly Federalist sixth Congress in power for nearly a month. During this month, Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. This Act modified the Judiciary Act of 1789 by establishing ten new district courts, expanding the number of circuit courts from three to six, and adding additional judges to each circuit (giving the president the authority to appoint federal judges and justices of the peace). The act also reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, effective upon the next vacancy in the Court.
The "Midnight Judges"
On March 3, just before the end of his term, Adams took advantage of the newly modified Judiciary Act by appointing 16 Federalist circuit judges and 42 Federalist justices. This was a clear attempt on Adams' part to stymie Jefferson and the incoming Democratic-Republican Congress. The appointees, infamously known as the "Midnight Judges," included William Marbury. An ardent Federalist and vigorous supporter of the Adams presidency, Marbury was appointed justice of the peace in the District of Columbia.
On the following day, the Senate approved the appointments en masse. In order for the appointments to go into effect, however, the commissions had to be delivered to those appointed. This task fell to John Marshall, who, despite being appointed chief justice of the United States, continued serving as the acting secretary of state at President Adams' personal request.
While a majority of the commissions were delivered, it proved impossible to deliver all of them before Adams' term expired. According to Marshall, the appointments, "... had been properly submitted and approved, and were therefore legally valid documents." Because the appointments were routine in nature, Marshall assumed that new Secretary of State James Madison would ensure their delivery. When Jefferson was sworn in as president on March 4, however, he ordered Levi Lincoln, the new administration's attorney general and acting secretary of state until Madison's arrival, to withhold the remaining appointments. Without the commissions, the appointees were unable to assume their appointed offices. In Jefferson's opinion, any commissions that were not delivered were void.
The Judiciary Act of 1802
The newly sworn-in Democratic-Republican seventh Congress immediately nullified the Judiciary Act of 1801 with their own Judiciary Act of 1802. This new act reestablished that the judicial branch would once again operate under the dictates of the original Judiciary Act of 1789. Additionally, it replaced the Supreme Court's two annual sessions with one session to begin on the first Monday in February and canceled the Court term scheduled for June of that year, with the hope of delaying a ruling on the constitutionality of the repeal act until months after the new judicial system was in place.
Court Ruling and Judicial Review
In deciding the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall agreed that Marbury had the right to a legal remedy, establishing that individuals had rights even the president of the United States could not abridge. However, Marshall also found that Congress’s Judicial Act of 1789, which would have given the Supreme Court the power to grant Marbury remedy, was unconstitutional because the Constitution did not allow for cases such as Marbury’s to come directly before the Supreme Court. Thus, Marshall established the principle of judicial review, which strengthened the court by asserting its power to assess (and possibly nullify) the actions of Congress and the president. Jefferson was not pleased, but regardless, Marbury did not get his commission.
Many legal scholars argue that the power of judicial review in the United States predated Marbury v. Madison and that this case was merely the first Supreme Court case to exercise an already existing power. Nothing in the text of the Constitution, however, had explicitly authorized the power of judicial review prior to this monumental case. As such, the case set an important precedent for the future of the U.S. government and further established the system of checks and balances between the branches of government.