On February 24th, 1803, in a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court ruled against William Marbury on the grounds that his claim was unconstitutional. This was the first time the Supreme Court had made a decision on such a basis and established the concept of judicial review in the United States. Specifically it empowered the Supreme Court to oversee, and if necessary, nullify the actions of the other two branches of government, making the court the final arbiter on what was constitutional and what was not.
The Marbury vs. Madison case dated back to 1801 and John Adams’ last hours in office as President. Before vacating the White House to his successor Thomas Jefferson – and also not attending his inauguration – Adams appointed 16 circuit court judges and 42 justices of the peace – all Federalists. (Jefferson and the majority of the incoming Congress were known then as Democratic-Republicans.) Adams then handed these appointments to his Secretary of State, and soon to be Chief Justice, John Marshall, who was then to have these documents delivered personally to the appointees.
This was a highly politically contentious time. The 1800 Presidential election had not been decided until February 17th, 1801 – Jefferson and Aaron Burr had tied in the Electoral College. So although Adams had every right to make his appointments - based on the Judiciary Act of 1801 and passed by the outgoing lame-duck Congress – his actions were viewed by his opponents as politically stacking the courts and the appointees were labeled the “Midnight Judges”. Although most of the commissions were delivered, William Marbury never received his; not such an incredible circumstance considering the distances that needed to be traveled on horseback for such deliveries.
Incoming Secretary of State James Madison finding Marbury’s commission undelivered simply held on to it – per President Jefferson’s instructions. Without the paperwork Marbury could not assume the position of Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia. So Marbury, being an attorney and hoping to further advance his legal career, requested a writ of mandamus, and thus force Madison to make his appointment official.
Almost two years later, now Chief Justice John Marshall and his peers ruled unanimously against Mr. Marbury, i.e. he never got the job and robe. First the court chastised both Jefferson and Madison for withholding Marbury’s commission; more or less irrelevant to the case, but Marshall and Jefferson loathed one another – ironically the two were cousins - and the Chief Justice couldn’t resist the opportunity to wag his finger.
Second, the court ruled that the Judiciary Act of 1801, under which Marbury had been appointed, was unconstitutional because it had been supplanted by the Judiciary Act of 1802, which operated under the original dictates of the Judiciary Act of 1789 with the original number of judges. (Confusing enough for you? Bottom line – there was no dispute because there was no vacancy and therefore no job. Damn lawyers.) The historical take-away here is that John Marshall and his Court set the precedent that the Supreme Court with judicial review was the final judge of “constitutionality”.
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