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The most important effect of this case was on the nature of American government. The case gave the Supreme Court the power of judicial review. It allowed the Court to declare laws passed by Congress to be unconstitutional. Even though this power was not used again for decades, it has come to have a huge impact on the way our country looks today.
If it were not for this case, it is conceivable that we might have a system in which laws passed by Congress and signed by the President could not be struck down by any higher authority. This would mean that we might still have a system in which it was possible to place severe limits on the freedom of speech. It might mean that racial segregation would have held on much longer than it did.
By providing for judicial review, this case made America a country that would do more to protect the rights of unpopular minorities of all sorts than many other countries.
Marbury v. Madison certainly is the case that established the Supreme Court’s power and legitimacy as a co-equal branch of government, on a par with Congress and the President. But there are also some interesting quirks in the facts and outcome of the case that are worthy of mention.
This case involved the appointments of an outgoing, “lame duck” president, Adams, who was trying to appoint as many justices of the peace as he could on his way out, a way of trying to exert his influence after he left office, just as a president today wants to appoint as many judges as possible before leaving office. When Adams’ successor, Jefferson, took office, he refused to allow the delivery of the appointments to the appointees, one of whom was Marley.
Marley filed his suit in the Supreme Court, seeking what is called a Writ of Mandamus. When a Writ of Mandamus is issued, it directs a government official to do what he is supposed to do under the law, in this case, to deliver the appointment made by Adams. This is a means of ensuring that government officials are not above the law and cannot arbitrarily decide what they will or will not do.
Unfortunately for poor Marley, the Supreme Court held that it could not do what he wanted because it did not have what is called “original jurisdiction” over his case. Original jurisdiction means that one can go directly to the Supreme Court with a lawsuit, rather than going to a trial court and then appealing to the Supreme Court. Under Article III of the Constitution, the category of cases that have original jurisdiction in the Supreme Court is very narrow. (And this is actually a good thing because if anyone could seek a trial before the Supreme Court, it would be hundreds of years behind in its decision-making. After all, there are only nine people doing this. The Supreme Court really was designed to do mostly appellate review.)
Congress had passed a law expanding the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to include cases like Marley’s, but the Supreme Court ruled that that the law was unconstitutional because it went beyond what Article III allowed in the way of original jurisdiction. This meant that Marley lost his case because the Court did not have original jurisdiction, and so it had no authority to issue a Writ of Mandamus. I have never managed to find out what happened to poor Marley, but we can only hope that he filed properly at the trial court level and won his case.
But the people of the United States did win because the Court ruled that it could (and did) strike down an unconstitutional law, exerting its Constitutional authority over Congress and the President in the first case in which its power and authority over those branches was at issue. Congress can pass no law that is in contradiction with the Constitution and presidents are not above the law in carrying out properly executed decisions of their predecessors.
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