In a historic legal matter that transpired on February 24, 1803, Marbury v. Madison marked the moment when the U.S. Supreme Court, under the guidance of Chief Justice John Marshall, made its initial pronouncement that an act of Congress was in violation of the Constitution. This pivotal decision laid the cornerstone for the doctrine of judicial review and is widely regarded as a fundamental pillar of American constitutional jurisprudence.
During the lead-up to Thomas Jefferson's presidential inauguration in March 1801, the outgoing Federalist Congress took actions to solidify their influence over the judiciary. They established 16 fresh circuit judgeships via the Judiciary Act of 1801 and introduced an unspecified count of new judgeships. President Adams then appointed Federalist judges to these positions, aiming to maintain his party's dominance in the judicial branch and hinder the legislative objectives of Jefferson and the Republican (Democratic-Republican) Party.
Being one of the final appointments made during the so-called "midnight appointments," William Marbury, a prominent figure within the Federalist Party hailing from Maryland, found himself without his official commission by the time Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency. After taking office, Jefferson instructed his secretary of state, James Madison, to withhold Marbury's commission. Subsequently, Marbury initiated legal action by petitioning the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, compelling Madison to take action.
Marbury and his attorney, the former attorney general Charles Lee, contended that the act of signing and sealing the commission constituted the final step in the process, considering delivery as a mere formality. Nevertheless, regardless of its formal nature, the absence of the physical commission document prevented Marbury from assuming his official responsibilities. Despite President Jefferson's opposition, the court consented to consider the case, which would become known as Marbury v. Madison, during its term in February 1803.
📌 Thoughts on Marbury v. Madison
👉 The power of judicial review over executive actions
The landmark case of Marbury v. Madison lays the foundation for several critical principles that remain relevant today. Firstly, it establishes the power of judicial review over executive actions. The Court differentiates between domains where individual rights and corresponding government responsibilities are at stake and those where the executive branch possesses discretion in its actions. In cases falling into the latter category, the Court asserts that the political process serves as the primary check on the executive branch.
👉 The upper limit of federal court jurisdiction
Secondly, Marbury v. Madison sets the precedent that Article III defines the upper limit of federal court jurisdiction. The ruling asserts that Congress lacks the authority to broaden the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In a broader sense, Marbury establishes the idea that Article III delineates the extent of federal court jurisdiction. Consequently, Congress cannot grant federal courts the authority to adjudicate cases that go beyond the scope outlined in Article III, and federal courts cannot acquire jurisdiction through consent.
👉 The power of judicial review over legislative act
Thirdly, Marbury v. Madison solidifies the power of judicial review over legislative acts, which is its most notable contribution. The case achieves this by invalidating a section of a federal law, the Judiciary Act of 1789, which the Court interprets as granting the Supreme Court the authority to issue writs of mandamus within its original jurisdiction. However, a close examination of that provision raises doubts about whether it genuinely confers this authority. The pertinent excerpt from Section 13 of the Judiciary Act read as follows:
“The Supreme Court shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts and courts of the several states, in the cases hereinafter specially provided for; … and shall have power to issue writs of prohibition … to the district courts, when proceeding as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any court appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.”
The statute appears to pertain to appellate jurisdiction rather than original jurisdiction. Had the Court adopted this interpretation, Marbury's case would have been dismissed due to jurisdictional limitations, and the Court would not have had the opportunity to address the question of whether the Supreme Court can assess the constitutionality of federal laws.
👉 John Marshall: Visionary or Shrewd Political Operator?
This, undoubtedly, is one of the remarkable aspects of Marbury v. Madison: Chief Justice John Marshall managed to institute the concept of judicial review while simultaneously invalidating a statute that appeared to expand the Court's authority. From a political perspective, Marshall faced a challenging predicament as granting relief to Marbury could have led to non-compliance with the court's order by the Jefferson administration. Furthermore, there existed a tangible risk of Jefferson pursuing the impeachment of Federalist justices in an effort to shift control of the judiciary to the Republican party. Notably, one judge, although clearly lacking competence, had already been impeached. Shortly thereafter, the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against Justice Samuel Chase, citing his partisan statements from the bench and his criticism of the repeal of the 1801 Circuit Court Act.
However, John Marshall's actions extended beyond merely ruling in favor of the Jefferson administration. He seized the opportunity presented by Marbury v. Madison to establish and articulate the authority of the judiciary. His actions have left a lasting legacy, defining the role of federal courts that endures to this day.
👉 The Impact of Marbury v. Madison in Subsequent Cases
It wasn't until 1857, in the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856), that the Supreme Court again declared a federal statute unconstitutional. This decision, which nullified the Missouri Compromise, played a role in triggering the Civil War. By that time, the authority of the Court to assess the constitutionality of federal laws had become an established and accepted aspect of the American governmental system.
Marbury v. Madison has been invoked by the Supreme Court in some of the most important cases in American history. For example, in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), the Supreme Court ordered President Richard Nixon to produce tapes of White House conversations in connection with the Watergate investigation. In response to the president’s claims that he alone should determine the scope of executive privilege, Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the Court, stated:
"In the performance of assigned constitutional duties, each branch of the Government must initially interpret the Constitution, and the interpretation of its powers by any branch is due great respect from the others. The President's counsel, as we have noted, reads the Constitution as providing an absolute privilege of confidentiality for all Presidential communications. Many decisions of this Court, however, have unequivocally reaffirmed the holding of Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803), that "[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." Id. at 5 U. S. 177. No holding of the Court has defined the scope of judicial power specifically relating to the enforcement of a subpoena for confidential Presidential communications for use in a criminal prosecution, but other exercises of power by the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch have been found invalid as in conflict with the Constitution. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U. S. 486 (1969); Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U. S. 579 (1952)."
Therefore, Marbury v. Madison lays the cornerstone of American constitutional law by affirming the power of judicial review over both executive and legislative actions.