Marbury v. Madison | 1803
Yale University Law Professor & Constitutional Law Scholar
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  • Thomas Jefferson's letter to Abigail Adams
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Subject: Establishing the basis for judicial review
Case Decided:
February 24, 1803

Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the Constitution as the supreme law of the United States, asserting the Court’s power of judicial review. The Supreme Court found that federal courts have the power to invalidate acts of other branches of government when they violate the Constitution. It’s one of the “checks and balances” central to the function of the federal government.

In 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams to become the third president. Just before he left office, Adams created a slew of new judicial positions and appointed his political allies to fill them. When Jefferson took office, his Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to deliver the commissions that would allow the judges to assume their duties. Some of the appointees, including William Marbury, petitioned the Supreme Court to force him to deliver the documents. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous court, ruled that while it was illegal for Madison to withhold the commissions, the Court did not have the authority to force Madison to deliver them. The ruling struck down as unconstitutional a part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 granting the Court power to issue an order known as a writ of mandamus. Over 50 years will pass before the Supreme Court uses its power of judicial review again in the Dred Scott case.

Key Players
Chief Justice John Marshall

John Marshall (September 24, 1755 – July 6, 1835) was a Virginia politician, U.S. secretary of state, and the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court (1801 – 1835). His influential opinions early in the Court’s history helped establish the judiciary as equal in power to the other branches of government.

Image courtesy of Library of Virginia
President Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) succeeded John Adams as president (1801 – 1809). He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence and a leader in the Democratic-Republican Party, which believed strongly in limited government and individual rights.

President John Adams

John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was a Founding Father, vice president, and the second president of the United States (1797 – 1801). He was a member of the Federalist Party, which believed in a strong central government. Adams considered naming John Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court to be one of his greatest legacies.

William Marbury

William Marbury was a successful businessman and a big supporter of the Federalist Party. On the day before he left office, President John Adams nominated Marbury to the newly created position of justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, a post that Marbury never got to fill.

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