Marbury v. Madison — the Landmark Case that Established Judicial Review

February 1803

Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark Supreme Court case in which Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of judicial review, granting the Supreme Court the power to declare laws unconstitutional.

John Marshall, Supreme Court Justice, Painting, Jarvis

Chief Justice John Marshall. Image Source: WhiteHouseHistory.org

Marbury v. Madison Summary

Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark court case that resulted in the United States Supreme Court establishing the principle of Judicial Review, giving the Court the power to review and strike down laws passed by Congress or the states if they are deemed unconstitutional. The case arose in 1801 when William Marbury, who had been appointed as a justice of the peace by President John Adams, was not delivered his commission by Secretary of State James Madison. Marbury sued Madison and asked the Supreme Court to issue a Writ of Mandamus to compel the delivery of his commission. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall held that Marbury was entitled to his commission but that the Court did not have the power to issue the Writ of mandamus, as it conflicted with Article III of the Constitution. Marshall’s opinion established the principle that the Supreme Court had the power of Judicial Review to determine the constitutionality of laws, a power that has been a cornerstone of the legal system in the United States since then.

Marbury v. Madison Facts

  • In March 1801, the “lame-duck” Congress, which was controlled by the Federalist Party, passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801.
  • The acts created 16 new judgeships for the federal circuit courts and other legal positions necessary for the government of the District of Columbia.
  • William Marbury did not receive his commission before Jefferson became president, and Jefferson refused to issue it to him. 
  • Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to issue a Writ of Mandamus, which would force Secretary of State James Madison to issue the commission.
  • The Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Marshall heard the case in February 1803.
  • The Supreme Court ruled the commission was valid, and Marbury had a right to receive it but went further to say the Court had no power to issue Writs of Assistance because Section 13 of the 1789 Federal Judiciary Act was inconsistent with Article III of the United States Constitution.
  • The court declared that Section 13, which had authorized the Supreme Court to issue Writs of Mandamus, was unconstitutional, which established the concept of Judicial Review.
  • Although the court agreed Marbury should have received his commission, it could not issue the Writ of Mandamus. As a result, Marbury never received his commission.
John Adams, Portrait, Stuart
John Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Marbury v. Madison History and Overview

In the historic court case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the principle of Judicial Review, which is the power of the courts to review and declare laws unconstitutional. The case arose from the Presidential Election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent John Adams. Adams, a Federalist, made a number of last-minute judicial appointments, known as the “Midnight Judges,” including that of William Marbury as a justice of the peace for a county in the District of Columbia. Marbury’s appointment was confirmed by the Senate, but he did not receive his commission before the end of Adams’s term. Marbury’s commission, along with several others, were found in the State Department offices. When Jefferson took office, he ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to hold the commissions.

Marbury Sues Madison

Marbury sued Madison, seeking a Writ of Mandamus from the Supreme Court to force Madison to deliver the commission. Chief Justice John Marshall, who was also serving as Secretary of State in Adams’s administration when the commission was signed, had a difficult decision to make. He did not want to appear partisan or interfere with the authority of the new President, but he also believed that Marbury had a valid legal right to the commission.

Marbury v. Madison Questions

During the proceedings, Marshall looked for the answers to three questions:

  1. Did Marbury have the right to the commission?
  2. If Marbury’s right had been violated, did the law provide him with a remedy?
  3. If the law did provide a remedy, would the proper remedy be a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court?

On the first question, Marshall held that the validity of a commission existed once a President signed it and transmitted it to the Secretary of State to affix the seal. Further, the Secretary of State had a ministerial task to perform, which he was bound by law to execute. Therefore, Marbury had a right to the commission. In this particular case, Marshall himself was the Secretary of State who had affixed the seals to the commission.

Marbury v. Madison Decision

On the second question, Marshall found in Marbury’s favor, holding that he had a right to the commission and that the law provided him with a remedy.

On the third and crucial question, Marshall declared that the court had no power to issue a Writ of Mandamus, even though the Judiciary Act of 1789 had granted the court the power of mandamus in original jurisdiction because that provision of the act was inconsistent with Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. 

In his famous opinion, Marshall gave Jefferson a technical victory in the case but established a far-more-significant power for the court — that of Judicial Review.

Marshall sided with Marbury on the first two questions. On the third, he actually limited the power of the court, saying it could not issue the Writ of Mandamus, which technically gave the Jefferson Administration a victory in the case.

However, in limiting what the Court could do, it established the principle of Judicial Review — the power of the Court to declare acts of Congress and the states unconstitutional. Although Judicial Review was not explicitly stated in the Constitution, Marshall argued it was implied by the structure and purpose of the Constitution, which he called “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation.” The Court established it had a duty to uphold the Constitution, which was the supreme law of the land, and it had the authority to strike down inconsistent laws.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Significance of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison was a crucial moment in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, and it established the principle of judicial review, which remains an important part of American constitutional law today. Marshall’s opinion was a masterful balancing act that both upheld the rule of law and preserved the independence of the judiciary. It was also a testament to his skill as a jurist and his commitment to the Constitution, which he called “a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

Marbury v. Madison APUSH Notes

Use the following links and videos to study Marbury v. Madison, the United States Constitution, and the Federal Court System for the AP US History Exam.

Midnight Judges Definition for APUSH

The definition of Marbury v. Madison for APUSH is a landmark 1803 Supreme Court case in which Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of Judicial Review, which grants the Supreme Court the power to declare laws unconstitutional. The case arose from a political dispute over an appointment made by outgoing President John Adams in the final hours of his term, and the Court’s decision helped to define the balance of power among the three branches of the federal government. The case remains one of the most significant in American history.

Marbury vs. Madison: What Was the Case About?

This video from History.com discusses the Midnight Judges and Marbury v. Madison.

Frequently Asked Questions About Marbury v. Madison

What is a Writ of Mandamus?

A Writ of Mandamus is a court order that requires a government official to carry out a specific duty or to stop a specific action that is prohibited by law. It is a type of legal order that is issued by a court to compel a public official or entity to perform an official duty, typically one that the person who asks for it claims something is owed to them. In the United States, a Writ of Mandamus is issued by a court of appeals or the Supreme Court to compel a lower court or a government official to perform a legal duty, such as issuing a ruling or decision. In the Marbury v. Madison case, Marbury asked for a Writ of Mandamus from the Supreme Court to compel Secretary of State James Madison to deliver his commission as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Marbury v. Madison — the Landmark Case that Established Judicial Review
  • Date February 1803
  • Author
  • Keywords Marbury v. Madison
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 13, 2023

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