Describe the circumstances and outcome the Marbury v. Madison decision (1803).

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The underlying circumstances of the Marbury decision were the election of Thomas Jefferson to the White House and the consequent loss of power by the Federalists. In an attempt to retain power through the Judiciary, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which created a number of new Federal Judgeships. These would be filled by the outgoing Federalist President, John Adams, and since federal judges serve for life; the Federalists would be firmly entrenched in the Judiciary. Adams only filled  many of the appointments at the last minute, the so called "midnight appointments." Among them was the appointment of one William Marbury to be a Justice of the Peace in Washington D.C. The commission was undelivered when Jefferson took office, and he ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison not to deliver it. Marbury then sued in the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as provided for in the 1801 Act for a writ of mandamus (a order for a public official to perform a purely administrative duty.) Chief Justice John Marshall sympathized with Marbury, and hated his cousin, Jefferson; and was therefore inclined to issue the Mandamus. He knew, however, that if he did so, Jefferson would simply ignore it, as the President has the power under the Constitution to enforce the laws of the U.S. He therefore took a middle position and declared that the Judiciary Act which gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction violated the Constitution. The significance of the decision is it is the first time the Supreme Court assumed the power to interpret the Constitution and thereby declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. Marshall's words were prosaic:

  The powers of the legislature are defined, and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction, between a government with limited and unlimited powers, is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it; or, that the legislature may alter the constitution by an ordinary act.

Between these alternatives there is no middle ground. The constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.

If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the constitution is not law: if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power, in its own nature illimitable.

T]he particular phraseology of the constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument