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Supreme Court Cases

Marbury v. Madison

It wasn’t until the landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, that the Supreme Court gained the authority to judge the constitutionality of laws.


The Case in Brief

History. President John Adams stacked the federal courts with political allies before Thomas Jefferson could take office, including prominent businessman William Marbury. Jefferson refused to approve some of the judges, resulting in Marbury filing a lawsuit for his job.

Case Facts. The Court at the time, located in the basement of the Capitol building, was far weaker than the other branches of government. Even if the Court sided with Marbury, it was unclear if Thomas Jefferson would listen to the Court and grant Marbury his spot in the courts.

Majority Opinion. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the Court the authority to review laws. Marbury must receive his commission.

Results. The idea that the Supreme Court could overrule an act of Congress was first voiced by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers in 1788, but Marbury v. Madison enshrined that principle in law. The ruling further established the power of the federal courts over other branches of government to interpret the nation’s laws.


Midnight Judges. In 1800, Federalist President John Adams lost the presidential election to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. In an attempt to reduce the Democratic-Republicans’  influence and power, Adams’ fellow Federalists in Congress created a slew of new federal courts and judicial positions, allowing Adams to appoint many political allies — now called the “Midnight Judges” — to the seats. The Federalists hoped that the judiciary could stall or outright block much of Jefferson’s policy agenda. Adams was signing commissions — documents granting the receiver a job — for these new appointees right up until the end of his presidency. His Secretary of State, John Marshall, was responsible for delivering these commissions, and while he was mostly successful, he failed to deliver four of them in time. When Jefferson took office, he ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold the commissions, angering William Marbury, an Adams appointee who had not yet received his commission. Marbury sued, asking the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus forcing Madison to deliver the commission.

Supreme Court Location. In its beginning, the Supreme Court was little more than a last resort for troubled cases. The Court held little power and even lacked a location to try cases. The first few meetings of the Court took place in bars and taverns around D.C. until the Court found a semi-permanent home in the basement of the Capitol building. Lit only by whale oil lamps, the Court heard famous cases directly under the Senate. When the Senate moved from its original chambers to a new chamber large enough to match the expanding number of states, the Court was denied from moving to the old Senate room since it would put them on the same floor. The Senate feared it would symbolically indicate the Court was equal to the legislature. Similar fears largely drove the controversy that was Marbury v. Madison.

Case Facts

Former Secretary of State Secretary John Marshall, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over the case despite being the reason Marbury did not get his commission. Whether because of a conflict of interest or Marbury making a good case, the Supreme Court was leaning towards granting Marbury his commission. However, the Court, located in the basement of the Capitol building, was far weaker than the other branches of government at the time. Even if the Court sided with Marbury, it was unclear if Thomas Jefferson would obey its order and grant the commission.

To walk this delicate tightrope, the Court set out to answer three questions:

  • Did Marbury have a right to his commission?
  • If yes, does the law provide a solution?
  • If yes, was the proper legal solution a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court?

Majority Opinion

Alexander Hamilton first voiced the idea that the Supreme Court could overrule an act of Congress in The Federalist Papers in 1788, but Marbury v. Madison enshrined that principle in law. The ruling further established the power of the federal courts over other branches of government to interpret the nation’s laws.

First, the Court ruled that Marbury had a right to his commission. Congress created these new judicial positions, and President Adams fulfilled his duty to appoint them. The fact that Marshall failed to deliver some of the commissions was a technicality.

Second, the Court held that Marbury had sought the proper legal remedy to obtain his commission. The Judiciary Act of 1789 broadened the which cases could go directly to the Supreme Court — original jurisdiction cases — and empowered the Court to issue writs of mandamus in those cases.

However, the Supreme Court ruled it did not have the authority to compel Madison to deliver the commission to Marbury. Article III of the Constitution lays out a narrow set of circumstances in which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction: “Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party.” The Court ruled that the Judiciary Act of 1789 directly conflicted with the Constitution by broadening these criteria and was therefore null and void.

Marshall’s opinion invested the Supreme Court with the power of judicial review — the power to review the constitutionality of laws or executive acts and overturn unconstitutional ones. This decision made the Court the final interpreter of the Constitution.

Related Cases

Texas v. Pennsylvania (2020)

(South Asia Time)

2020 Election. Directly following the results of the 2020 presidential election, Texas filed suit against Pennsylvania, claiming that their election process disenfranchised Texans and violated the Electors Clause of the Constitution. They argued that because Pennsylvania election laws caused Trump to lose, Texans who voted for Trump were harmed. The Supreme Court ultimately did not hear the case, stating that Texas failed to show sufficient evidence for a violation of Article III of the Constitution.

Precedent. In Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, the Supreme Court adjudicated the 2000 election. They had to consider whether the Florida Supreme Court violated the Electors Clause by changing the Florida Legislature’s manner of appointing electors — similar to the Texas lawsuit. Ultimately — like in the Texas case — the Court declined to rule on the issue.

Political Questions. Texas v. Pennsylvania was an original jurisdiction case between states, which usually results in the Supreme Court taking up the case. However, the Texas lawsuit asked a political question when it asked the Supreme Court to change Pennsylvania election law and flip electors. Even if the Court were to take the case, find in favor of Texas, and flip electors, the process of the Court altering the election results would have damaged the Court’s authority. Similar to Marbury v. Madison, the Court had to contemplate whether any opinion they gave would even be heard.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think Americans would have accepted a Supreme Court ruling in this case? Why or why not?
  2. Why would the Court’s authority be damaged by ruling on this case?
  3. Why should the Court consider its authority before deciding a case?

FRQ Practice

FRQ #1

In 1798, the state of New York granted Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton a monopoly on steamboat navigation in waters owned by the United States. In 1807, Aaron Ogden purchased the rights from Fulton to operate steamboats on the Hudson river — but competition began operations on Ogden’s waters! In 1819 Ogden sued Thomas Gibbons, who was operating steamboats in the same waters without the authority of Livingston and Fulton.

The ensuing case, Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), gave the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, which was granted to Congress by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. This case — where the Court favored Gibbons — was also the first significant expansion of the power of the federal government in establishing the supremacy of federal laws over state laws.

  1. Identify the two constitutional clauses involved in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824).
  2. Explain how Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) and Marbury v. Madison (1803) are similar in establishing federal authorities.
  3. Explain how Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) affected federalism.

Important Terms

Commission. The act of granting certain powers or the authority to carry out a particular task or duty. In this case, the authority to be a federal judge.

Writ. A court-issued written order commanding the party to whom it is addressed to perform or cease performing a specified act.

Original Jurisdiction. Refers to the question of which court has the authority (“jurisdiction”) to hear a legal case for the first time. For instance, a family law court has the authority to hear a child custody case but not a burglary case. Marbury v. Madison expanded the scope of the Court’s original jurisdiction to include cases involving presidential appointments to the federal courts.

Current Events

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