Marbury vs. Madison

Marbury vs. Madison

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Marbury vs. Madison


Under the administrations of Washington and his successor, John Adams, only members of the ruling Federalist Party were allowed to be on the bench, and under the Constitution, they held office for life during "good behavior." So when the Republicans won the election of 1800, the Jeffersonians found out that even though they controlled the presidency and Congress, the Federalists still had control of the judiciary. One of the first acts of the new administration was to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1800, which had created a whole bunch of new judgeships. Although President Adams had attempted to fill the vacancies before the end of his term, a number of commissions had not been delivered, and one of the appointees, William Marbury, sued Secretary of State James Madison to force him to deliver his commission as a justice of the peace.
The new chief justice, John Marshall, understood that if the Court awarded Marbury a writ of mandamus (an order to force Madison to deliver the commission) the Jefferson administration would ignore it, and this would weaken the authority of the courts. And if the Court denied the writ, it might appear that the justices had acted out of fear.

He declared that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury, but then held that the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the authority allotted the Court under Article III of the Constitution, and was therefore null and void. Thus he was able to punish the Jeffersonians and not make it so that a court order would be ignored.
The importance of Marbury is the guess of several powers by the Supreme Court. One was "the authority to declare acts of Congress, and by implication acts of the president, unconstitutional if they exceeded the powers granted by the Constitution." But even more important, the Court became the arbiter of the Constitution, the final authority on what the document meant. the Supreme Court became in fact as well as in theory an equal partner in government, and it has played that role ever since.
The Court would not declare another act of Congress unconstitutional until 1857, and it has used that power sparingly. But through its role as arbiter of the Constitution, it has, especially in the twentieth century, been the chief agency for the expansion of individual rights.

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For further reading: George L. Haskins and Herbert A. Johnson, Foundations of Power: John Marshall, 1801-1815 (1981); Donald O. Dewey, Marshall v. Jefferson: The Political Background of Marbury v. Madison (1970).
¹ JMU Editor: "Jeffersonians" and "Republicans" refer to the adherents of the same party, the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which at this web site will consistently be referred to as the Democratic-Republican party. The "Federalists" were the party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. For more on the party system, go to "Two Parties and the First Two Party System" in "James Madison: His Legacy."
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