Marbury v. Madison and the Marshall Court

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Why is Marbury v Madison such an important case in Constitutional law?

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In establishing the principle of judicial review the landmark case of Marbury v Madison made the United States Supreme Court a major player in the American system of government. Prior to this case, the judicial branch had played a relatively unimportant role in domestic political life. But once the Supreme Court arrogated to itself the right to strike down laws as unconstitutional, that suddenly changed. From now on, the Court would become deeply embroiled in all manner of contentious political issues and in its many controversial rulings would, for good or ill, make a major contribution to the relevant debate.

Though the judiciary may still be regarded as the least dangerous branch of government in that it lacks a police power to enforce its rulings, it still plays a very important part in the American political system. Whatever the issue, whether it's abortion or gun rights or the funding of political parties, Americans increasingly look to the Supreme Court to provide a lead in shaping the agenda. Prior to Marbury v Madison this would've been unthinkable. But ever since the Court gave itself the right of judicial review, it has attained a level of prestige and importance which few other constitutional courts in the world have been able to match.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 11, 2019
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The Supreme Court's decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803) is significant because it established the principle of judicial review—the power of the Court to rule acts of Congress unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, a "Law repugnant to the Constitution is void."

The law in question was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which stipulated that the Court could issue a writ called a mandamus to force the executive branch to deliver appointments to justices who had been chosen for the federal courts. President Thomas Jefferson had ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to refuse to deliver letters of appointment to so-called "midnight justices" like William Marbury, appointed by Federalist president John Adams at the end of his term. Marshall's opinion was that this aspect of the law was unconstitutional and that it was therefore null and void. In stating this, he established an important check on the powers of Congress by the federal courts, albeit one that would not be used again until the Court's infamous decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. Though it technically restrained the power of the court to issue writs of mandamus under these circumstances, this decision, along with others made by the Court under John Marshall, went a long way toward establishing the federal judiciary as a coequal branch of government.

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The 1803 case Marbury v. Madison is one of the landmark decisions under John Marshall because it established the power of the judicial branch with the principle that the Supreme Court may declare an act of Congress void if it is inconsistent with the United States Constitution. This means the Court has the power to decide which laws are constitutional in what is known a judicial review.

Here is the history of this case:

The outgoing President, John Adams, who was anxious about losing positions from his political party, nominated forty-two judges prior to his leaving office so that his party's majority could out-rule the incoming President, Thomas Jefferson. One of the nominated judges was William Marbury.

When the last-minute commissions were not completely processed before Adams left office, Marbury was simply appointed as a judge. When Jefferson came into office, the judges' positions were reduced in number, leading Marbury to lose his job as part of this reduction. Marbury then submitted a grievance, asking the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to award him his position as justice of the peace for Washington County in the District of Columbia. When Madison denied Marbury his position in the court, Marbury subsequently petitioned for a writ of mandamus compelling delivery of the commissions.

Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall thought that Secretary of State Madison was wrong for having denied Marbury his position; however, according to the U.S. Constitution, Marshall wrote, the Supreme Court did not have the power to issue such writs of mandamus. 

Marshall determined that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789—authorizing the Supreme Court to issue writs to government officials—was unconstitutional because it was an extension of judiciary power into the realm of the executive.

Since the judiciary’s first responsibility is to uphold the Constitution at all times, Marshall wrote that if two laws conflict, the court bears responsibility for deciding which law applies in any given case. This decision in Marbury v. Madison, then, established what is known as judicial review. That is, the Supreme Court has the power to decide which laws are constitutional. In establishing judicial review, the decision of Marbury v. Madison has had a profound impact on American history.

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Marbury v. Madison is important because this was the case in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that it had the power of judicial review.

The Constitution says that it is the supreme law of the land.  No law may be passed that violates the Constitution.  But who gets to decide which laws violate the Constitution?  The Constitution does not say.  In this case, the Supreme Court decided that they are the ones who get to decide on this issue (this is what “judicial review” means).  So, this case is important because it led to the establishment of one of the most important parts of our political system. 

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