One of the most important Supreme Court cases in the history of the United States was Marbury v. Madison.
In 1803 the federal judiciary held little authority and its powers were loosely defined by the Constitution. The result was a weak Supreme Court that impacted little in the early days of the nation.
Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison completely changed that fact by introducing the concept of judicial review.
From that decision onwards, the Judicial branch has stood on equal ground with the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government. The modern system of checks and balances is largely a result of the landmark decision in Marbury v. Madison.
- Marbury v. Madison Background: the Judiciary Act of 1801
- Marbury v. Madison Summary
- Why Was Marbury v. Madison Important?
Marbury v. Madison Background: the Judiciary Act of 1801
One of the central events that forms the background of Marbury v. Madison is the significant Judiciary Act of 1801, also known as the “Midnight Judges Act.”
Educators often teach that Congress and lame-duck President John Adams passed the Midnight Judges Act in February 1801 following the contentious election of 1800.
The act reorganized the federal judiciary by doubling the number of circuit courts from three to six, creating 16 new judgeships, and reducing the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five.
A later act by Congress created 42 justices of the peace in DC and Alexandria (Virginia). Perhaps most importantly, President Adams also named his current Secretary of State, John Marshall, as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.1
When Adams rapidly filled most of these new positions or “Midnight Judges” at the last minute with Federalist-leaning judges, his critics accused him of trying to hamstring the incoming Jefferson administration.
With all these events taking place after Adams’ loss in the election of 1800, it paints a compelling picture that Adams indeed had nefarious intentions. However, important facts are often ignored in this narrative.
First the Judiciary Act of 1801 was long in the making and actually was first introduced during the first session of the Sixth Congress (Dec 1799-May 1800). However, President Adams did not sign the act until February 1801 and after the election, hence the controversy.2
Seeing as Congress introduced the new act before Adams’ loss and addressed a decade of complaints from the federal judiciary members, it is not conceivable that the act was passed out of pure political spite.
Regardless, when Secretary of State John Marshall failed to deliver all the authorized commissions prior to the beginning of Jefferson’s presidency, the resulting conflict led directly to Marbury v. Madison.
Marbury v. Madison Summary
The Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison can be summarized as a landmark case that drastically strengthened the power of the federal judiciary.
When Marshall failed to deliver all the new judiciary commissions on time, Jefferson ordered his new Secretary of State, James Madison, to not deliver them. Jefferson argued that since the commissions were not delivered, they were not valid.1
One of the people denied a commission as a Justice of the Peace was a Maryland businessman named William Marbury. The disgruntled Marbury later filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against Madison, seeking a writ of mandamus, or having the court force Madison to deliver the commission to him.
Chief Justice John Marshall delivered his fateful opinion on February 24, 1803. In it, Marshall masterfully navigated a controversial situation by simultaneously expanding and reducing the court’s power.
Marshall delivered his opinion by asking three sequential questions and answering each in turn.
- First, did the Supreme Court have jurisdiction in this case?
- Second, did the Constitution or federal laws offer a remedy to Marbury?
- Third, did the Supreme Court have the authority to issue a writ of mandamus?
Marshall answered the first question by opposing Jefferson’s opinion and determining that Marbury had a claim to his commission upon signature and sealing, rather than delivery of the commission.
Since Marbury’s commission had vested, the Supreme Court indeed had jurisdiction over the case. In determining the answer to the second question, the Chief Justice answered it with a single quote:
“[The] government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right”
Simply put, if the US Constitution was to be taken seriously, laws must be in place to provide a remedy to one whose right have been violated.
Lastly, in answering the final question, Marshall expertly navigated a tricky situation by determining that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court the authority to issue a writ of mandamus forcing Madison to give Marbury his commission.
However, in reaching this conclusion Marshall determined that the Judiciary Act of 1789 contradicted Article III of the Constitution by enlarging the power of the federal judiciary.
Therefore, as the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court could not issue a writ of mandamus in the case.
Madison may have won the case, but by ruling Section 13 of the Judiciary Act unconstitutional, Marshall established the doctrine of “judicial review” which gave the Supreme Court the power to “strike down” laws in conflict with the Constitution.
Why Was Marbury v. Madison Important?
The Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison was important as it established the doctrine of judicial review, exercised the system of checks and balances, highlighted the transition from popular to legal constitutionalism, and cemented John Marshall’s legacy as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
As a landmark case, Marbury v. Madison has been referenced countless times justifying the power of the federal judiciary. Without it, our modern government would look much different today.
Established Judicial Review
Perhaps the most important outcome of Marbury v. Madison was how it firmly established the concept of judicial review. In the process, it greatly expanded, clarified, and defined the powers of the federal judiciary.
Prior to the landmark case, the federal judiciary was fairly weak, its powers were not clear, and it was certainly not co-equal to the legislative and executive branches of the government.
In 1800 the title of Supreme Court justice did not carry the weight it does today. In fact, Adams named John Marshall Chief Justice only after his top choice, John Jay, declined in part due to frustrations over the limited powers of the Supreme Court and the rigors of the job.1
Marshall’s adoption of judicial review changed all of this. Under the concept of judicial review, the Supreme Court now had the final say as to whether any laws or certain actions of the executive branch fell under the lens of the Constitution.
If laws or executive action were in conflict with the Constitution, the Supreme Court could “strike down” such laws and actions, ruling them unconstitutional.
Marshall may have looked to the Federalist Papers to interpret what he thought as the Constitution’s true intent for the judicial branch. In Federalist 78, Hamilton wrote:3
“The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body.”
While judicial review was not a new concept, it was previously used sparingly and was becoming less popular in its application.
Marshall carefully used Democratic-Republican arguments in his opinion in order to prevent more moderate politicians from disagreeing with his opinion. Court scholars argue he may have forced the issue of judicial review into his opinion lest it become too unpopular to consider in future years.4
Exercised System of Checks and Balances
Another important result of the Marbury v. Madison decision was the emergence of the system of checks and balances. James Madison famously explored the concept of checks and balances in Federalist 51.
He knew that in order to be successful, the United States needed a Constitution that kept the government divided into departments, where each department (executive, legislative, judicial) had the ability to “check” the others and maintain “balance” where one department did not get too powerful.
However, Madison, and the Constitution as well, left the formal powers of the Supreme Court relatively undefined. Just how it was to check the other branches was unclear, given that judicial review was not yet an established power.
The battle over the Judiciary Act of 1801, or the Midnight Judges Act, helped convince Federalists that checks and balances needed to be extended to the judiciary.
Jefferson immediately sought to repeal the Midnight Judges Act and succeeded in 1802. He won a pyrrhic victory, however, as the act united Federalists behind the idea that Congress was not the final authority on the Constitution and needed to be checked by a separate branch.3
In order to formally carve out a major Constitutional role, the Supreme Court needed a strong Chief Justice. It found that in John Marshall, a relative outsider to the court who brought major changes to the judiciary’s role in the federal government.
Solidified the Transfer from Popular to Legal Constitutionalism
Another important part about the Marbury v. Madison case is how it formalized and solidified the transfer of popular constitutionalism to legal constitutionalism.
Popular constitutionalism signifies a society in which the community, or the people at large, hold the power to determine what constitution it lives under.
Prior to the adoption of the US Constitution in 1789, US society largely lived under this understanding. Communities were small enough, and in some cases, isolated enough, where they lived by their own values, regardless of official law.4
If a formal law opposed a community’s values, the people would effectively nullify a law through mob rule as the community rose up against the threat. Unless the British crown or state authorities adopted enforcement methods, the communities lived under this popular constitutionalism concept.
This action can easily be seen in the widespread riots and mob actions as a result of the hated Stamp Act of 1765, Tea Act of 1773, and other unpopular British policies pre-revolution. Even after the founding of the United States popular constitutionalism could be seen in events like the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
Following the adoption of the US Constitution, US society slowly changed as popular rule gave way to legal constitutionalism whereby representatives acted as the will of the people.
This transfer of power meant that these representatives now were the authoritative source on what was or was not legal. Court justices were indirectly included among the representatives of the people.
While Congress immediately became the de facto authoritative source of Constitutional law, Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison helped to carve out this role for the Supreme Court to be the final authoritative source of Constitutional law.
Cemented Marshall’s Tenure as Chief Justice of Supreme Court
A final reason for the importance of Marbury v. Madison was how it cemented John Marshall’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
When Marshall handed down his landmark decision he had only been Chief Justice for two years. The case was his first major one and became the first of several landmark decisions over his tenure.
Over his 34 year service as Chief Justice, Marshall wielded incredible influence in helping to shape both the Supreme Court as well as the federal government as a whole.
Ironically, given the impact of the Marbury v. Madison decision, Marshall likely should have recused himself from the case.
After all, a central element of the case was whether or not the commission to Marbury was valid upon signing and sealing, or delivery. As Marshall himself was Secretary of State at the time and the one who signed the commission, it could be argued he had a major conflict of interest.1
Regardless, leaders of the day accepted Marshall’s decision, cementing his influential status. Marshall went on to deliver a number of significant decisions in other major court cases.
Without the influence of John Marshall, the federal government may have looked very different in the modern day.
To recap, Marbury v. Madison was an important case for the following reasons:
- Established judicial review
- Exercised system of checks and balances
- Transfer from popular to legal constitutionalism
- Cemented John Marshall’s tenure as Chief Justice
Few cases have had such an impact on the federal government. Arguably, many of Marshall’s subsequent landmark decisions would not have come to be without the powers gained in Marbury v. Madison.
Despite the extra power, the Supreme Court treaded carefully over the subsequent decades. Marshall did his best to not overextend the power of the judiciary and maintain strict constitutional bounds.
Despite having the power to do so, the Supreme Court did not declare another federal law unconstitutional until the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case which declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
When looking at the history of the Supreme Court, the importance of Marbury v. Madison is essential to understand.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) van Alstyne, William W., and John Marshall. “A Critical Guide to Marbury v. Madison.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 1969, no. 1, 1969, pp. 1–47. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1371456.
2) Surrency, Erwin C. “The Judiciary Act of 1801.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1958, pp. 53–65. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/844302.
3) Corwin, Edward S. “Marbury v. Madison and the Doctrine of Judicial Review.” Michigan Law Review, vol. 12, no. 7, 1914, pp. 538–72. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1274986.
4) Kramer, Larry. “Understanding Marbury v. Madison.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 148, no. 1, 2004, pp. 14–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1558241.