Marbury vs Madison


The case between Marbury and Madison has continuously been considered a landmark ruling since it was passed. A number of scholars have argued that the case presents a better illustration to the understanding of the courts’ mandate in the constitutional interpretation of the law with a number of judicial reviews surrounding the happenings during this case. This case marked the time when the court started gaining authority over the federal government as far as the interpretation of the Constitution was concerned. It is during this turn of events that John Marshall, who was the Chief Justice, made a decision that set a clear illustration that it was the Supreme Court which had the final say in regard to the interpretation of the Constitution making the case between Marbury and Madison, which occurred in 1803, be one of the Landmark Supreme Court Cases in the US.

Key words: court, case, Constitution, Supreme Court, judicial review

Marbury v. Madison


The case between Marbury and Madison, which took place in 1803, has been considered a landmark decision by the Supreme Court since it marked the first time that the Supreme Court demonstrated its power as the organ with the final say on matters pertaining to the institution. The case created the “judicial review” a concept which allows the Judiciary to have constitutional powers over the Congress as far as the matters dealing with the interpretation of the Constitution are concerned. Therefore, it was the first time that the Supreme Court declared a Congress act to be unconstitutional and, therefore, illegal (Bill of Rights Institute, 2010). The decision separated the Supreme Court as an independent government branch, which was at the same level with that of the executive, as well as the Congress.

Substance of the Case

The Marbury case was a complicated. The case arose after president Adams had been defeated in the election carried out in the year 1800 by Thomas Jefferson, who was the candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party that was a new party having been organized just before that election. The defeat created a lot of panic among the federalists who were not ready to complete cede power (Bill of Rights Institute, 2011).

The outgoing president, Adams used his persuasion power to win the support of the Congress to allow the passage of the 1801 Judiciary Act into a new law. Therefore, he obtained power through this law to appoint a good number of new judges to the national courts. His intention was to have the nation’s courts dominated by individuals who would present a barrier to the passage of the various policies that the Republican government would want to implement. He was successful in the appointment of 39 judges (Bill of Rights Institute, 2011).

Unfortunately to him, his Secretary of State failed to deliver the commissions. Therefore, none of these appointments was delivered with the coming into office of the new administration under President Jefferson. The new president seemed to be in support of the failure by the Secretary of States, James Madison, to decline delivering the commissions. It was at this point that one of the justices, who had been appointed, William Marbury, took the Supreme Court into petition for what he called “a writ of mandamus”. This was a legal order which was meant to force the Secretary of States, James Madison, to justify why he had refused to accept his commission ((He, 2009). Marbury took an advantage of the fact that the Senate had approved its commissions, and the President had also appended its signature besides the fact that it had the government’s official seal. This was done during his last night of Adams in office just before he handed over the office to the incoming president (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

The Decision

The decision about the case was made by the Chief Justice, John Marshall, who utilized the chance to clarify that it was the Supreme Court which had the power to interpret the Constitution. In his resolution, the Chief Justice sought to provide answers to three major questions. The first question was whether the petitioner, Marbury, had a right to writ for which he had petitioned. The second question the Chief Justice considered was whether it was legal for Marbury to be granted such a writ under the national laws. The third question was based on the assumption that the first two questions were justified. It was whether the Supreme Court had the constitutional powers allowing its issuance of such a writ (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

As far as the first question is concerned, the chief justice gave a ruling that Marbury had the right to writ since his appointment was legal as all procedures were followed as stipulated in the law. He also noted that the complainant like any other qualified citizen had the legal right to his commission; he was allowed to ask for a legal remedy. Marshall added that the court had a responsibility to protect Marbury’s right just as one of the citizens of the land. He noted that this should be done irrespective of the person or the institution which was being accused (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

However, while tackling the third question of whether it would have been proper for the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, Marshall brought in question the issue of judicial review. His ruling was based on the fact that Section 13 of the 1789 Judicial Act, which had provisions allowing the Supreme Court to issue a writ, was not in line with the Constitution especially when it was extended original jurisdiction cases. This, therefore, led to a question of whether the complainant had the power of bringing cases to the Supreme Court directly without passing through the courts of lower instances (Wolf, 2011).

The Chief Justice clarified that the provisions of the Article III of the Constitution had stated clearly that the application of the “original jurisdiction” was limited to cases in which ambassadors, consuls, or other public ministers were one of the parties. Therefore, he ruled that it was not within the authority of the Congress to have extended the original jurisdiction of the court to allow the inclusion of the Marbury’s case. To him, this presented a case where there was a conflict between the Congress and the Constitution and whenever such happens the Supreme Court has the obligation of upholding the Constitution since it remains as the supreme law of the land as provided in its Article VI (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006). Following this interpretation, Marbury never obtained his commission

Landmark Supreme Court Decision

In order to understand the reason why this ruling was considered a landmark Supreme decision, it is essential to understand the historical background of the relationship between the Supreme Court and the other organs of government as had been provided for in the Constitution. Though the Constitution had recognized the creation of all the three branches of government that are the executive, the judiciary, as well as legislative, the Article III of the Constitution providing for the creation of the Supreme Court seemed not to have been fully in operation. This article was seen to have no definite meaning and was left to be interpreted by the Supreme Court, which for a long time remained subordinate and under manipulation of other branches of government (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

However, things were to change from the year 1789 after the ratification of the Constitution with the passage of the Judiciary act of 1789. The act saw the establishment of the federal court system. The Congress passed the creation of the district courts, circuit courts as well as the Supreme Court. However, there was a provisional vacuum regarding the specific number justices that the Supreme Court would have. The Congress had provided, in the Judiciary Act, the five Associate Justices as well as the Chief Justice. This means that the scope of the court’s power was left undefined by the Congress as well as in the Constitution. Therefore, the powers would become clearer through the gradual definition during the interpretation of the Constitution as it continues to handle cases within its jurisdiction (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2006).

It is clear that the Chief Justices, who came before John Marshall, had little impact as far as the powers of the Supreme Court were concerned. This gave away to a long term manipulation of the Judiciary and the subsequent perception that it was subordinate to other organs of government. However, this was to end during the term of John Marshall who worked as the Chief Justice between the years 1802 to 1835 through his landmark Marbury versus Madison decision. John Marshall’s influence on the powers and the people’s perception of the country’s Supreme Court is still felt to date. This was witnessed from his earlier days in the office as the country’s Chief Justice. Though the case between Marbury and Madison would be seen as a very insignificant, the way in which it was handled made it one of the landmark decisions the United States’ Supreme Court has ever made.

The Chief Justice made it clear that the Congress had no constitutional powers to take from the Supreme Court, its original jurisdiction to interpret the law as provided for in the Constitution. This provision, according to Marshall, could neither be expanded nor contracted by the national government. This means that the 1789 Judicial Act was unconstitutional. The Act had sought to allow the Congress to give the Court the authority to carry out the issuance of writs of mandamus. This meant that the Court would have powers to give an order to the officers of the federal government to carry out given tasks. Its failure, therefore, means that the president could not be ordered by the supreme courts to have certain appointments delivered. The decision made by Marshall was a landmark ruling since it helped set a precedent which has continued to date; the Acts of the Congress could be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Bill of Rights Institute, 2011).

As he made his ruling, the Chief Justice, John Marshall seemed to have exclusively relied on certain specific Constitutional languages which considered the Constitution a “paramount law of the nation”. This means that every action that could be undertaken by any of the national government’s three branches was constrained by the Constitution. According to his words, the Constitution is majorly implemented to ensure that the government does not go beyond the prescribed constitutional limits. He stated that just as any other branch of the government, the legislature had its powers limited by the Constitution because of the need to ensure that these limitations were adhered to that the Constitution was written. According to his ruling, even the cases where any law would be found to be in conflict with the Constitution, any decision to be made by the judiciary had to be in line with the provisions in the Constitution. The Constitution remains the supreme law of the nation (Bill of Rights Institute, 2010).

Marshall added that understanding, as well as articulation of the meaning of every provision of the Constitution, was the sole responsibility of the Court. He states “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is”. In the conclusion of his decision, he emphasized that any law, which would be repugnant of the Constitution, would be rendered void and that any other department like courts are also bound by the Constitution (Bill of Rights Institute, 2010).

Another factor that made this decision stand out was the fact that it took many decades thereafter for any other act of the Congress be declared unconstitutional by the Court up to the year 1857, when the Supreme Court managed to have the Missouri Compromise which involved Dred Scott and Sanford struck down. The Court embarked on the sparing use of its supreme authority for a number of decades. However, this changed with the end of the 19th century since the beginning of the 20th century analyzed a good number of federal laws being struck down by the court. But even then, the justices kept on referring to this specific case. The supreme power of the court has been attributed to the decision made by John Marshall, which seemed to have made it clear that the court should have the final say in the understanding and interpretation of the Constitution. Though it happened many years ago, the court continued to cite the case in affirming its legitimacy (Bill of Rights Institute, 2010).

The decision made by John Marbury was and is still a landmark decision. Even though, the national government has kept on expanding its powers and the laws of the various states are reviewed by the federal government, the Supreme courts still have powers over such reviews carried out by the federal government. Such Amendments as that which gave rise to the protection of the Bill of Rights from any interference by the individual states and that of the Fourteenth Amendment have seen the Supreme Court continuing to have the power to allow or disallow any review by the Judiciary.


Marbury v. Madison case has formed the basis for a very important precedent as far as the powers of the Supreme Court in the United States are concerned. The power of judicial review has remained with the judicial court from the time of the case, and it is still generally accepted a number of centuries down the line. The Court has the power to overrule the law whenever it is found to be in conflict with the provisions of the Constitution. That is the Constitution has remained to be the “supreme law of the land”.

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