What are some questions asked in the case Marbury v. Madison?

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Marbury v. Madison was a very complex case remembered not so much for the issues at stake as for the precedent established in the Court's ruling. The case arose when outgoing President John Adams appointed several Federalist justices of the peace, including William Marbury, in the District of Columbia. The incoming President Thomas Jefferson was a Republican, and resented Adams' move. He ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to refuse to deliver the appointments as required by the Judiciary Act. The Act also allowed Marbury to petition the Supreme Court for a legal instrument known as a writ of mandamus to force Madison to deliver the signed and approved commission. So the questions were as follows:

  • Did Marbury have a right to the appointment?
  • Could the Supreme Court be required by an act of Congress to issue a writ of mandamus in such cases?

The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that Marbury did indeed have a right to the appointment, which was made by a President and approved by the Senate per the Constitution. But he also ruled that the Judiciary Act, which again, allowed Marbury to petition for a writ directly to the Supreme Court, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, Marshall wrote in his majority decision, did not have original jurisdiction in such cases. (It followed, as a sidenote, that the Supreme Court could therefore not force Jefferson to give Marbury the commission.) In short, he ruled a law made by Congress unconstitutional. This was the first time the Supreme Court had done so, and it set the important precedent of judicial review, though the Court would not exercise it much over the next century. The enduring importance of Marbury v. Madison has little to do, then, with the questions of the case.

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