Marbury v. Madison and the Marshall Court Questions and Answers

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In Marbury v. Madison, what law was declared to be unconstitutional?

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Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a very important Supreme Court case. In it, the Court decided that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional.

The case grew out of the development of political parties in the nation. The Founding Fathers had not anticipated political parties, but they became a reality by 1800. The first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were Federalists. But in 1800, Thomas Jefferson—a Republican—won the presidential election.

The outgoing Adams tried to perpetuate and enhance his party's control over the country's judicial branch. The Judiciary Act of 1801 reduced the size of the Supreme Court and created new judicial offices. Almost all of the Republican judges assumed office before Jefferson was sworn in.

Federalist William Marbury had not yet taken his judicial office when Jefferson became President in March 1801. Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the letter of appointment. Marbury sued in court to force Madison to deliver his commission.

The brilliant Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the Supreme Court's decision. He ruled that Marbury was entitled to his office, but that the Supreme Court lacked the power to force its delivery. The decision established the Supreme Court's right to judicial review and greatly strengthened its status as one of the three branches of government.

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The law that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison was a law called the Judiciary Act of 1789.

In this case, William Marbury had been appointed as a federal judge by John Adams after Adams had lost the 1800 presidential election to Thomas Jefferson.  Marbury did not actually get his commission before Jefferson’s administration came into office.  He sued to be put into the office to which he had been appointed.  He claimed that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction in the case.

The Court ruled that the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional because it broadened the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction beyond what was set out in the Constitution.

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