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Marbury v Madison

Few elections in American history have been as controversial and bitterly fought as the election of 1800. The election resulted in Thomas Jefferson and his party, the Democratic-Republicans, soundly beating the Federalist candidate, John Adams, in the race for President. The two men had once been good friends, but the election of 1800 would sever the relationship between them for much of the rest of their lives.

The Democratic-Republicans didn’t only win the presidency in 1800; they also won a majority in both chambers of Congress. Only the judiciary remained in the hands of the Federalists, a party that virtually anyone could see was dying. At that point in history, presidents were inaugurated in March following their election in November. Knowing that his party’s influence was greatly diminished, Adams took advantage of the time to enlarge the judicial branch and appoint Federalists to judicial positions.

One of Adams’s appointees was John Marshall, whom he appointed to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall was also a prominent Federalist who had served as Secretary of State under Adams. He made other appointments at the last minute—the so-called “midnight appointments”—that remained undelivered when Adams left office. They were still undelivered when Jefferson became President and when James Madison was sworn in as his Secretary of State. Though Adams signed the letters of appointment, Jefferson instructed Madison not to deliver them. Jefferson, of course, had one reason for doing this: he wanted as few Federalist judges as possible.

One of the appointees who did not receive his commission was William Marbury, a Federalist appointed as Justice of the Peace for Washington, DC. Marbury requested that the Supreme Court issue an order which would force Madison to deliver the commission. This lead to one of the most significant Supreme Court cases of the early republic, Marbury v. Madison, over the question of whether the Supreme Court could issue the order (a writ of mandamus) compelling Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commissions. At its core, however, the case had more to do with the separation of powers and the tensions between rival political parties.

In Marbury v. Madison, the Court addressed three questions:

  1. Did Marbury have a right to his commission?
  2. If he did have the right, and the right was violated, was the writ of mandamus a proper remedy?
  3. Did the Supreme Court have the right to issue the order?

Marshall was in a delicate position. He knew that Jefferson would likely refuse to comply with a writ of mandamus issued by a political rival. If Jefferson ignored the order, Marshall knew that it would diminish the Court’s authority as a co-equal branch of government. Simultaneously, if the Court failed to issue the order, it could be interpreted as a sign of weakness and would likely further damage the Federalist Party.

Ultimately, Marshall sided with Madison (and, by extension, Jefferson), but he did so in a cunning way that helped consolidate the Court’s power. In its unanimous ruling, the Court stated that Marbury was entitled to his commission and had the right to sue in court for a mandamus, an implicit reprimand to Jefferson, his political foe. But Marshall determined that the Court did not have the right to issue the mandamus, based on the Court’s belief that the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction, was unconstitutional. With one ruling, Marshall both raised the stature of the Supreme Court and established the precedent known as judicial review, which gives the Supreme Court the ability to determine the constitutionality of acts of Congress and the President.