Judgement: William Marbury v. James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States (1803)

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Coram: Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice William Cushing, Justice William Paterson, Justice Samuel Chase, Justice Bushrod Washington, and Justice Alfred Moore.

Note: Due to illness, Justice William Cushing and Justice Alfred Moore did not attend the oral arguments or participate in the Court’s decision.

Facts of the case

The dispute in question arose following the US Presidential election of 1800. Fighting for reelection, Federalist President John Adams lost to Democratic-Republican led Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Following his defeat and prior to President-elect Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration, fearing a loss of influence of the Federalists, President John Adams and Federalist-led Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 – also known as the “Midnight Judges Act”, and the District of Columbia Organic Act, both of which created several new judgeships and justiceships – 58 new judgeships, including 42 new justiceships of peace. The new appointments also included the appointment of the running Secretary of State, John Marshall, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

On the night prior to President-elect Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration, President Adams signed and sealed the new appointments under commissions – formal letters of appointment. These “commissions” were by convention required to be delivered by the Secretary of State to the appointees. Unfortunately, some of these appointments had not been delivered. The next day, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President. Upon taking office, President Jefferson instructed his newly appointed Secretary of State James Madison not to deliver the remaining commissions to the new appointees, this included commission for William Marbury, a Georgetown businessman and member of the Federalist Party. Consequently, Marbury brought a case against Madison in the Supreme Court, asking it to issue a writ of mandamus to compel President Jefferson’s administration to honor President Adams’ appointments. 

Supreme Court of the United States

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Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion centered around three key questions, namely; (a) did Marbury have a right to his commission?; (b) if Marbury did have a right to his commission, was there a legal remedy to obtain it?; and (c) if there was such a remedy, could the Supreme Court legally issue it? 

Regarding the first issue, Chief Justice John Marshall held that Marbury did in fact have a right to commission. This was because the applicable procedure had been complied with – the commission was properly signed and sealed. In this, the Court also rejected the argument from Madison contending that the commission was void for lack of delivery. The Court restated that delivery was merely a custom and not a part of the procedure in itself. Hence, the Court concluded that Marbury’s commission was valid and withholding of it was “violative of a vested legal right”.

Regarding the legal remedy, the Court restated the Roman legal maxim, Ubi jus, ibi remedium, which meant that “where there was a legal right, there was also a legal remedy for whenever that right was invaded”. This was established in Anglo-American law; particularly, noted in and cited by Chief Justice Marshall from William Blackstone’s Commentaries. In conclusion, the Court held that the sought remedy for a writ of mandamus was appropriate to Marbury’s situation. 

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Finally, regarding the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus, the Court held the answer to this issue depended on an interpretation of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave authority to the Supreme Court to issue writ(s) of mandamus in the first place. Section 13 of the 1789 Act dealt with the original and appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Marshall explained the difference between the two jurisdictions of the Supreme Court – under original jurisdiction, the Supreme Court had the power to first hear and decide a case; alternatively, in the case of appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court had the power to hear a party’s appeal from a lower court’s decision and if required, “revise and correct” the previous decision. 

The concern with section 13 was that it could be read either way – in support of original jurisdiction or in support of appellate jurisdiction. While Marbury argued that section 13 referred to original jurisdiction, Madison argued that section 13 referred to appellate jurisdiction. In this regard, Chief Justice Marshall held that section 13 was referring to the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. As such, the Supreme Court would be bound to issue a writ of mandamus for Marbury. But the proposed interpretation of section 13 conflicted with Article III, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. 

Article III, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution stated that the Supreme Court exercised original jurisdiction where a U.S. State was a party to a lawsuit or was in legal proceeding involved foreign dignitaries. In this case, neither of these two situations arose. Thus, to practically hear this case and authorize a writ of mandamus, the Supreme Court had to exercise appellate jurisdiction. However, according to Chief Justice Marshall’s interpretation of section 13, the Supreme Court in fact had original jurisdiction over claims of the writ(s) of mandamus like Marbury’s. This, therefore, meant that the 1789 Act, the statute that was passed by Congress, expanded the initial scope of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to include cases that involved writs of mandamus. The Court in conclusion held that Congress could not increase, or alternatively, decrease the scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction beyond that was cemented in the Constitution. Thus, Chief Justice Marshall held that this portion of section 13 violated the Constitution and hence it was unconstitutional, and Marbury could not be given a writ of mandamus. As a result of the ruling, the Court reaffirmed that American federal courts had the power to refuse giving effect to legislation passed by Congress that conflict with interpretations of the Constitution. This practice came to be known as “judicial review”.

A copy of the judgment can be found here.

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States of America. Established on 4th March 1789; 232 years ago, SCOTUS has the ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal and state courts cases that involve a point of federal law, and original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases. In this section, you will find summaries of landmark decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States dating back from 1789.

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About the Author

Moshiuzzaman
Moshiuzzaman holds a 2:1 LL.B degree from BPP University (UK). He is currently pursuing the CFA chartership and working as an independent legal researcher at the American Society of International Law (ASIL)
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