Judicial Review & the Marbury Case

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John Marshall

Marbury v Madison allowed the Marshall Court to give a broad definition of Judicial Review and perfect the Founding Father’s vision of Constitutional checks and balances.

In the final days of the John Adams’ presidency, the president and his Secretary of State, John Marshall, conspired to fill the Judiciary with Federalists. Thomas Jefferson’s Republican-Democrats had won clear majorities in the Election of 1800, controlling both the Congress and the Executive branch of government. Exercising his right as President, John Adams sought to keep the third branch of government solidly in the hands of the Federalists and appointed men that followed this ideology. William Marbury was one of those men.

Midnight Judges

Although many of the commissions signed by Adams were delivered by the “midnight” hour of his presidential tenure, Marbury’s was not. After the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to have Marbury’s commission delivered. It was an attempt to keep Federalists out of the Federal Judiciary and both Jefferson and Madison knew that federal judges served for life, although Marbury’s term as a magistrate would have been for five years.

William Marbury sued and filed a Writ of Mandamus with the national Supreme Court, taking his cue from Section 13 of the recently passed Judiciary Act of 1789. The Writ of Mandamus, a product of English Common Law, sought to order the government – James Madison, to fulfill his duty and delivery the commission.

The Court’s Response

Chief Justice John Marshall, appointed by Adams to lead the high court, was faced with a dilemma. Clearly Marbury deserved his commission, but there was no guarantee that the Jefferson Administration would honor such a decision. Marshall noted, however, that Article III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution defined the Federal Supreme Court as an appellate court, not a court of “original jurisdiction.” If the high court ruled in Marbury’s favor, it would be acting as a trial court and thus violating its Constitutional mandate.

The unanimous decision declared that Section 13 of the 1789 Judiciary Act was unconstitutional in that it allowed petitioners to bring requests for remedy before the Supreme Court without beginning the legal process in a lower court. The Judiciary Act was held unconstitutional. This decision is regarded as the precedent for Judicial Review, a process whereby the Supreme Court can review cases brought before it and determine the Constitutional merits of acts of Congress.

Jefferson’s Response

President Jefferson wisely accepted the court’s findings but referred to the court as an “oligarchy.” His Congressional surrogates would attempt to remove Federalist judges through the impeachment process beginning with Associate Justice Samuel Chase one year after the Marbury decision was handed down. Chase was acquitted and the high court was vindicated.

Marbury v Madison (1803) represents a significant victory for the third branch of government and opened the door for other landmark decisions of the Marshall Court that highlighted Judicial Nationalism and preserved the Court as an integral part of the checks and balances system provided by the Founding Fathers.