Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) and established the precedent of judicial review; that is, asserting the duty of the court to strike down laws passed by the legislature that are unconstitutional. Indeed, Marshall refers to this process as “the very essence of judicial duty.” Marshall found in this specific case that the Judiciary Act of 1789 was inconsistent with Article III Section II of the Constitution. What Marbury v. Madison changes is massive: Going forward the courts have the power of judicial review, and it has been leveraged ever since.
Judicial review, it turns out, is by design, though not explicitly stated in the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton argues in 1788 in Federalist 78 that “the courts of justice are to be considered as the bulwarks of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments.” Thus, Hamilton states that the courts must have the ability to check the authority of Congress. Furthermore, Hamilton writes in Federalist 78: “There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm…that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.” Thus, prior to the Constitution being ratified, Hamilton made the case for judicial review, that is, legislative acts that are contrary to the Constitution are invalid; furthermore, Hamilton argues for what becomes Article VI of the Constitution, the supremacy of the Constitution.
Judicial activism is an effort to use the power of the Judiciary branch to solve a political and/or social issue that the legislature has failed to address. There are myriad examples of judicial activism throughout our history, where the work of “activist judges” is decried and calls for judicial restraint are made. Judicial restraint is where judges deliberately restrict their own power, and defer to Congress on matters of social policy. One such example of judicial activism is Chief Justice Taney’s infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) establishing that enslaved black Americans not only did not have standing in court, they also were not citizens, thus the ruling attempted to codify slavery and non-citizenship rights of the enslaved. Taney argued he was trying to solve the issue of slavery, but history saw that the decision fast-tracked the Civil War. Constitutional scholars consider this the worst supreme court decision in our great nation’s history, but it also was an example of judicial activism that turned out to not be in the public interest.
Another example of judicial activism that was actually in the public interest was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) where Chief Justice Earl Warren found that “separate but equal” facilities are by their very nature unequal, thus violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. At this time, African Americans in many US states were subjected to the Black Codes, local customs and laws that treated African Americans differently, including segregation of public schools. By upholding the 14th Amendment as good law, the Brown v. Board decision opened the door for enforcement of all aspects of the 14th Amendment, including citizenship rights, due process and equal protection, cornerstones of the rights of all Americans.
Thus, I would argue that judicial activism has sometimes carried incredibly unfortunate consequences (Scott v. Sandford) but more often than not it’s been an essential function of the courts, to enforce the Constitution in the interest of the rights of all Americans.
If it is argued that judicial activism is always not in the public interest, that the courts are overreaching in their authority, the counter-argument is simple: The Legislature, the great body of the people, must respond to the will of the people and actually govern. When over 400 bills passed by the House go to die in the Senate without even being read by committee (currently what has happened under the McConnell Senate) the Legislature is demonstrably failing in its duty to act in the best interest of the people. So, for those who find judicial activism to be a problem, I would argue they should start with getting the Legislature to actually legislate. View All Articles
Signed in convention September 17, 1787. Rati ed June 21, 1788. A portion of Article
III, Section 2, was changed by the 11th Amendment
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme
Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time
ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts,
shall hold their O ces during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times,
receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished
during their Continuance in O ce.
Read Interpretations of Article III,
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under
this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or
which shall be made, under their Authority;–to all Cases a ecting
Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;–to all Cases of
admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;–to Controversies to which the United
States shall be a Party;–to Controversies between two or more States;-between a State and Citizens of another State;–between Citizens of
di erent States;–between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under
Grants of di erent States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and
foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases a ecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls,
and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have
original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme
Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such
Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury;
and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have
been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall
be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Read Interpretations of Article III,
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against
them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No
Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two
Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but
no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except
during the Life of the Person attainted.
Read Interpretations of Article III,
MORE ABOUT ARTICLE III
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Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University
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Great Ironies of History: The Peculiar Historic
Fable of Marbury v. Madison
Eric J. Beckerman
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GREAT IRONIES OF HISTORY:
The Peculiar Historic Fable
Marbury v. Madison
Eric J. Beckerman
May 18, 1990
Anglo-American Legal History
On the first day of virtually every course in American Constitutional Law the case of
Marbury v. Madison1 is taught. Students are usually told that this is the case that established
what we refer to today as judicial review. They are instructed as to the continuing controversy of
how “The Great Chief Justice,” John Marshall, created out of thin air the power of the courts to
pronounce acts of the other branches of government unconstitutional. A cursory review of the
bare facts of the case usually accompanies the legal analysis of the opinion generally followed by
extensive commentary and criticism by past and contemporary legal scholars. All in all the
student is left with the impression that the ultimate power that the Supreme Court wields today
was invented by, and is a direct lineal descendent of, John Marshall and his opinion in the case of
Marbury v. Madison.
This paper will briefly attempt to dispel this legend. The first part of this piece will trace
some of the origins of judicial review to show that it was not the creation of John Marshall in
1803, but rather sprang from circumstances of a century and a half of history that were unique to
the American colonies and the new republic. In addition, it will be shown that judicial review
had, in fact, been exercised in the courts of America numerous times before the decision in
Marbury, and that this power must have been within the contemplation of the framers at the time
the Constitution was written.
The second part of this paper will examine the whole case and controversy. By
examining the events surrounding the case it will be shown that the motives compelling the
decision were rooted in a fierce political battle and that the entire issue of judicial review, which
5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803).
need not have been addressed in the decision at all, would never have come up but for this
The final part of this paper will show that the case, at the time, did not stand for what it
has come to mean today. The continuing controversy that is taught in law schools today is a
controversy that did not heat up until long after John Marshall was dead and subsequent Supreme
Courts used his eloquence on the matter to expand the power of the Supreme Court to
dimensions that John Marshall never had intended nor even imagined possible.
American Origins of Judicial Review
The power of American judges is unparalleled among western nations. 2 Nowhere else in
the world do judges wield as much power in shaping the contours of society as they do in this
country.3 Traditionally, law students are taught that this power emanates from John Marshall’s
opinion in the case of Marbury v. Madison, but this is not altogether accurate. It is true that this
case established a precedent that subsequent Supreme Courts have cited extensively to justify
sweeping judicial activism but this turn of events is largely a modern phenomenon. 4 That this
opinion conceived judicial review as it is applied by the Supreme Court today is implied, if not
actually stated outright, in Constitutional law classes. It is, however, an assumption that is
patently false. The philosophical conceptualization of what we call judicial review long predates
Wood, The Origins of Judicial Review , 22 SUFF. U.L. REV. 1293 (1988).
Clinton, Precedent as Mythology: The Case of Marbury v. Madison, 1989 YEARBOOK OF THE SUPREME COURT HIST.
SOC. 78 (1989).
John Marshall. And, as we shall see, its first implementation hardly occurred in Marbury.
Marshall was, however, the first to lay out the argument for it in a Supreme Court opinion.
To understand the evolution of judicial review one must first examine the sources that lie
in the first century and a half of American colonial history and in American attitudes towards the
law.5 The idea that there existed some supreme law as to which the ordinary laws of the colonial
legislatures had to conform with was not the stuff of abstract legal and moral philosophy for the
colonists, but rather was an everyday part of their judicial system. The thirteen colonial
legislatures were dependent governments and at all times had to conform to the laws of
Parliament. The Privy Council in England possessed the power to disallow laws adopted by the
thirteen colonial assemblies. This power of review was exercised when the colonial legislatures
exceeded their authority in adopting certain laws or when colonial laws conflicted with the
superior laws adopted by Parliament.6 Additionally, the inquiries concerning colonial
conformity most often were judicial questions, for the Privy Council sat as a court of law with
regard to American colonial enactments. 7 To colonial Americans, therefore, judicial control of
this sort would have been entirely familiar. To the American colonial lawyer it would have had
to have been second nature. 8 This circumstance alone, however, does not explain how a concept
as “radical” as judicial review would become a part of the American legal psyche. For this we
need to develop an understanding of the intellectual climate and legal culture of the time.
Wood, supra note 2, at 1297
E. RUSSEL, THE REVIEW OF AMERICAN COLONIAL LEGISLATION BY THE KING IN COUNCIL 227 (1976),
according to Charles Grove Haines, the Privy Council reviewed 8563 acts adopted by the colonial legislatures between
1696 and 1776, and 469 or 5.5% were disallowed by orders of the council. C. HAINES, THE AMERICAN DOCTRINE OF
JUDICIAL SUPREMACY 49 (1959); See also C. WOLFE, THE RISE OF MODERN JUDICIAL REVIEW 74 (1986).
Black, An Astonishing Political Innovation: The Origins of Judicial Review, 49 U. PITT. L. REV. 691, 693 (1988)
The starting point of such an analysis is the idea that if a sovereign’s legislative power
has limits, it is limited by principles of some “fundamental law”. Fundamental law, in its purest
sense, is law beyond human invention. Law which is “out there somewhere,” a kind of lurking
omnipresence, whether God’s law, the law of nature, the law of reason, the law of custom or
some other like thing.9 Such law was discovered as an act of revelation. In the early
seventeenth century, in England, Lord Edward Coke was to expound, in dictum, the concept that
was to become the ideological underpinnings of modern judicial review. In Dr. Bonham’s Case
Coke stated that “it appears in our books, that in many cases, the Common Law will control
Acts of Parliament and sometimes adjudge them to be utterly void; for when an Act of
Parliament is against common right and reason, . . . the Common Law will control it, and
adjudge such act to be void.”11
Unfortunately Coke’s early notions of judicial review never caught on in England. By
the eighteenth century the views of William Blackstone were dominant in England. 12
Blackstone spoke of positivism, where law is an act of authority and that all law is of human
invention.13 In Blackstone’s view there was nothing Parliament was not empowered to do.
Blackstone was not completely adverse to the idea of fundamental law, but to him it was merely
a moral inhibition or conscience existing in the minds of the legislators. The intrinsic problem
with this interpretation of fundamental law was that it was so basic and so primal that it was
Id, at 694.
8 Coke 107
Black supra note 7, at 694.
See generally 1 BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES.
enforceable only by the people’s right of revolution; relief could hardly run in the ordinary court
Of these competing legal philosophies it was Coke’s that had the greatest impact in the
American colonies.15 It has been asserted that as early as 1688 the men of Massachusetts did
much quote Lord Coke.16 Even earlier than that, in the case of Giddings v. Brown, 17 Coke’s
dictum received practical application, something which never actually happened in England,
though the act overturned was merely a town vote. Magistrate Symonds based his judgment for
the plaintiff upon the following grounds, “The fundamental law which God and nature has given
to the people cannot be infringed. The right of property is such a right. In this case the goods of
one man were given to another without the former’s consent. This resolve of the town being
against fundamental law is therefore void, and the taking was not justifiable.”18 This colonial
American embrace of Coke continued on into the eighteenth century.
The colonists found Coke’s ideas appealing and relevant, not just because of their
immediate self-serving usefulness in the independence debate of the late 1700’s, but because
such ideas fit their notion of what law ought to be. Their experience predisposed them to find
Wood, supra note 2 at 1297.
Corwin, The Establishment of Judicial Review, 9 MICH. L. REV. 102, 105 (1910).
Id, citing RENSCH, COLONIAL COMMON LAW: SELECT ESSAYS IN ANGLO-AMERICAN LEGAL HISTORY, Vol. 1
Id. Corwin cites many examples of Coke’s jurisprudence on the subject in eighteenth century American
colonial courts starting with the seminal opening argument of James Otis in the Writs of Assistance case in Boston in
1761. His argument being that whether the writs were warranted by an act of Parliament or not, was a matter of
indifference, since such an act of Parliament would be against the constitution and against natural equity and therefore
void. The executive courts must pass such acts into disuse. Coke’s famous dictum was raised again in 1765 when
Governor Hutchinson, referring to the opposition to the Stamp Act, wrote that the prevailing reason at this time is that
the act of Parliament is against the Magna Charta, and the natural rights of Englishmen, and therefore, according to Lord
Coke, null and void. In 1776, at the outbreak of the war, Justice Cushing charged a Massachusetts jury to ignore certain
acts of Parliament as void and inoperative.
Coke’s ideas meaningful.19 The colonists believed that the overriding nature of law lay in the
“immutable maxims of reason and justice,”20 in something other than the ordinary will of the
legislature. To the Americans, the Common Law fit nicely into this paradigm. The Common
Law, as the American colonists saw it, was the fundamental law that was superior to the ordinary
legislative acts of men. To them, it embodied the principles, rules, procedures, precedents and
truths of the legal system that presumably went back to time immemorial. 21 For many colonists
the Common Law had been frozen at the time of the initial migrations to America in the
seventeenth century. English precedents were important up to around 1607 or maybe 1650, but
any decision after that date might be disregarded for wont of relevance to American
This predisposition to Coke’s ideas, on its own, could not gestate into the adoption of the
practice of judicial review. This basic legal philosophy however combined with other conditions
that were unique to the colonial legal system and created a synergistic effect, inadvertently
giving powers to the colonial judges that their English counterparts could never attain. The
reasons for this had to do with the simplicity of the colonial court system as compared with the
numerous and specialized courts back in England. 23 This circumstance created an unforeseen
but incredible paradox. All of the highly complex and diversely rooted varieties of English law,
Wood supra note 2 at 1298
Id. at 1299.
Id. Wood points out the stunning contrast that, to the Englishmen of the eighteenth century, the common law
was a much more complete and dynamic thing than it was for the colonists. For the English, the common law was
something living and growing; it included not only the reports and decisions of Coke and other judges in the past, but all
the subsequent judicial determinations and legislative additions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To the
English the common law was the current law.
“What was most obviously simpler about the American legal system was the undifferentiated nature of the
courts. The colonists had none of the hodgepodge of courts that existed in England – no ecclesiastical courts, no
in addition to the widely derived colonial laws, 24 intermingled and had to be applied within
simple, often single court, judicial systems.25
This heretofore unknown administrative
contradiction caused substantial uncertainty throughout the colonial courts. The end result of
this paradoxical incongruity was that the colonial courts were unintentionally
encumbered/empowered with the novel necessity of judicial discretion.
Because of the very perplexities facing them, colonial judges were free, if not forced, to
select and innovate in order to adjust to continuously evolving local circumstances. 26 Far
removed from the strict procedures and protocols of English jurisprudence, colonial
jurisprudence was characterized by flexibility, uncertainty, and an unprecedented degree of
judicial discretion. The very complex nature of the colonists’ legal situation forced them to
revert to a kind of medieval English jurisprudence where the right reason and the morality of the
Common Law controlled. Once Common Law lawyers began thinking along these lines,
deciding on the basis of reason or common sense whether they would or would not follow a
particular form or procedure, then a new legal world opened up. The Common Law was based
on just such complicated forms and procedures, but by resting their law on some principle
beyond statutory will or the technicalities of the Common Law – rather on principles of morality
merchant courts, no courts of the manor, no courts of the borough, and so on. In some colonies there were not even
separate equity courts or probate courts.” Wood supra note 2, at 1300.
“The colonists’ law had several sources, both from England in the common law reports, new judicial
interpretations, and parliamentary statutes, and from each colony’s own legislative statutes and local judicial customs.” Id.
The fact that the colonists approximated without really duplicating England’s common law procedures
contributed to the legal confusion. Many of the English common law forms were present but often with defects and
irregularities. The use of some writs and not others, the corrupting and blending of forms of action, the avoidance of
special pleading and insufficiency of pleading in general – pleading lying at the heart of the common law – helped to
create an atmosphere of permissiveness and uncertainty that a sharp lawyer with a collection of English precedents no
one had ever heard of could turn to advantage. Id. at 1301.
or justice or common sense or even just utility – the colonists paved the way for the mechanism
that we now call judicial review. 27
Archaic philosophical underpinnings aside, there existed more concrete notions of
judicial review abounding in America at the time of the revolution. Conceptually, judicial
review is the implicit sine qua non of the very theory of written constitutions as higher law.
Even positivists could be included in this line of reason. If all law is of human invention and a
mere act of will, as positivists believe, a sovereign people can exercise its will to bind those who
legislate with a higher law in the form of a written constitution. Such a constitution would be
adopted in a special, solemn manner by the people, and not subject to alteration by any but the
most extraordinary procedures therein established, procedures which, once again are rooted in
acceptance by the people.28
An examination of decisions in the state courts after the revolution lends further credence
to the idea that judicial review of legislation was an established feature of American
jurisprudence well prior to the Marbury decision. The first authenticated case in which a court
ventured to refuse enforcement to a legislative enactment on the ground that it conflicted with
the provisions of a written constitution is that of Holmes v. Walton, 29 which was argued before
the Supreme Court of New Jersey in November of 1779.
Wood supra note 2, at 1302-03.
Black supra note 7, at 695.
See Corwin supra note 15, at 110. Professor Corwin cites several scholarly works that refer to this case
although no official court citation is given.
The notion of judicial review was broached again in the case of Commonwealth v. Caton
decided by the Virginia Court of Appeals in November of 1782, 31 and again in 1786 in
Rhode Island in the case of Trevett v. Weeden .32 This case is considered a transitional case
because the plea to overturn the statute was based on the notion that the statute (which dealt with
trial by jury) was contrary to fundamental law as opposed to being in conflict with a written
constitution. (Evidently Coke’s dictum was still very much alive). 33 A genuine case of judicial
review of the second type, (i.e., the negating of a legislative enactment as being in conflict with a
written constitution), occurred in 1784 in Connecticut in the Symsbury Case .34
This brings us to the time of the constitutional convention. While the convention was
actually in session the Supreme Court of North Carolina, after more than a year’s hesitation,
pronounced unconstitutional, in the case of Bayard v. Singleton ,35 an Act of Confiscation
dating from the Revolution. These cases certainly buttress the position that judicial review of
legislation was not only theoretically known in the state courts but was actually implemented on
many occasions as well. It is unlikely the conventioneers were unaware of these state court
decisions. In fact, a plausible argument can be advanced that the power of coordinate judicial
4 Call (Va.) 5 (1782), cited in Corwin at 112.
“The act in question was the so-called Treason Act of 1776. Randolph, attorney general, argued for the
commonwealth that whether the act of assembly pursued the spirit of the constitution or not, the court was not
authorized to declare it void. The act was upheld but the judges were generally of the opinion that if they found it to be
in conflict with the constitution they would have had the power to declare it void.” Id.
Id., at 113. Trevett v. Weeden is considered a focal point in the idea of judicial review although no statute was
overturned. Madison makes reference to it in his notes on the constitutional convention. Madison’s Notes, July 17,
Id., at 114
Kirby (Conn) 444-7 (1784), cited in Corwin at 114. The facts of this case were that a later grant of land by the
legislature was set aside in the interest of an earlier similar grant of the same parcel, upon the ground that the act of the
general assembly could not legally operate to curtail the land previously granted.
1 Martin (N.C.) 42 (1787), cited in Corwin at 119.
review was not specifically enumerated in the Constitution because it was taken for granted as an
inevitable feature of governing pursuant to a written constitution.
The concept of judicial review was even discussed at the convention. The topic came up
after a proposal to adopt a Council of Revision had been considered. 36 The proposed council
would have been comprised of the President and members of the judiciary, exercising the veto
power against congressional bills when appropriate. This proposal was rejected primarily
because it violated the constitutional principle of the separation of the powers. 37 An argument
exists that another reason for rejecting the council was that the delegates assumed the power of
judicial review already existed.38 This assertion can be supported by an exchange between
delegates Luther Martin of Maryland and George Mason of Virginia. Martin asserted:
As to the constitutionality of laws, that point will come before the judges in
their official character. In this character they have a negative on the laws. Join
them with the Executive in the revision, and they will have a double
Mason agreed with Martin about the existence of judicial review although disagreed about how
that double negative would operate. What is significant though is the clear assumption underlying
Martin’s objection to the Council of Revision: the Court already had a negative power in the form
of judicial review.40
Dionisopoulos and Peterson, Rediscovering The American Origins of Judicial Review: A Rebuttal to the Views Stated by
Currie and Other Scholars, 18 J. MARSH. L. REV. 49, 56 (1984) (Hereinafter REBUTTAL).
Id. citing JOURNAL OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION KEPT BY JAMES MADISON 104-05, 107 (E. Scott
ed. 1893) (hereinafter MADISON’S JOURNAL).
REBUTTAL at 57
MADISON’S JOURNAL at 402.
REBUTTAL at 57. The authors maintain that the true political leaders of the convention were all in favor of
judicial review. Included among them were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, Elbridge Gerry, Luther
Just as certain powers were assumed to be part of the presidential power, judicial review
was assumed to be part of the judicial power. 41 This is essentially the logic behind Hamilton’s
argument in Essay No. 78 of The Federalist. Hamilton’s argument for judicial review occurs in
the context of his discussion for the need for tenure during good behavior in order to protect
judicial independence. Independence is a particularly necessary feature of a limited constitution,
that is a constitution that limits itself in certain specified ways. “Limitations of this kind can be
preserved in practice in no other way than through the medium of the courts of justice, whose
duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without
this, all reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.”42
Hamilton goes on to add that:
There is no position which depends on clearer principles than that every act of
a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is
exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution,
can be valid. . . It is not otherwise supposed that the Constitution could intend
to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their
constituents. It is far more rational to suppose that the courts were designed to
be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature in order, among
other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. 43
The heart of Hamilton’s argument lies in assertions he makes about both the nature of judicial
power, (“the interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts”), and the
nature of a constitution, (“a constitution is in fact, and must be, regarded by the judges as a
fundamental law”). From these assumptions it follows that judges “ought to regulate their
Martin and George Mason, who were certainly political leaders at the time. Therefore when Gerry, an advocate of
judicial review, informed his colleagues at the convention that this power was claimed by several state courts (see above)
and that this was done with general approval, there was no opposition to his contention. Id. at 56 citing MADISON’S
JOURNAL at 101.
REBUTTAL at 58.
Federalist No. 78
decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.”44 This
implies the superiority not of the judiciary to the legislature, but of the power of the people to
Other influential men of the time also had similar views on judicial review. Speaking at
the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, James Wilson, second only to James Madison in terms of
his influence on the drafting of the Constitution, 46 and later to be a Justice of the Supreme Court,
evidenced his support for the concept. 47 Even Thomas Jefferson had indicated support for
judicial review. In a December, 1787 letter to Madison concerning the new Constitution,
Jefferson did not seem to realize that the federal courts would have a negative power, and he
complained about this deficiency. 48 Subsequently Jefferson was enlightened as to the fact the
Judiciary had such a negative power and had wrote at least one letter to Madison indicating his
approval.49 Madison also echoed such approval. 50
He adds that “If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the
superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or in other words, the Constitution ought to be
preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”
Wolfe supra note 6, at 75.
REBUTTAL at 59
Wilson stated “If a law should be made inconsistent with those powers vested by this instrument in Congress,
the judges, as a consequence of their independence, and the particular powers of government being defined, will declare
such law to be null and void, for the power of the constitution predominates. Anything therefore, that will be enacted
by Congress contrary thereto, will not have the force of law. PENNSYLVANIA AND THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION 17871788 354 (J. McMaster & F. Stone eds. 1970) cited in REBUTTAL at 59, n. 65.
He wrote that “I like the negative given to the Executive with a third of either house, though I should have
liked it better had the Judiciary been associated for that purpose, or invested with a similar and separate power. 12 THE
PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 440 (J. Boyd ed. 1955) cited in REBUTTAL at 59.
REBUTTAL at 60.
In House debates over the Bill of Rights Madison stated that “independent tribunals of justice will consider
themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every
assumption of power in the Legislative or Executive; they will be naturally led to resist every encroachment upon rights
expressly stipulated for in the Constitution by the [Bill] of Rights.” 1 ANNALS OF CONG. 457 (1789).
All this evidence alone might lead one to conclude that judicial review was established
prior to Marbury, but the argument is even stronger when you consider the fact that the Federal
Courts of the United States had already exercised the power in the 1790’s, up to a full ten years
prior to Marbury v. Madison!51 Scholars contend that on a federal level, statutes were declared
unconstitutional on three separate occasions; in Hayburns Case 52 in 1792, in Chandler v.
Secretary of War, and in United States v. Todd, both in 1794.53 These are what are known as the
Invalid Pensioners cases.54
A problem arose under the third extension of the original bill in 1792. 55 Under the 1792
law, Congress authorized the Secretary of War to correct mistakes made by the circuit courts.
Section four of this act described the duties and responsibilities of the Secretary, who could
overturn judgments rendered by the judges. 56 What this meant seemed clear to the circuit court
judges: judges were being utilized as executive officials, with their findings subject to being
overturned by the Secretary of War. This appeared to be a clear violation of the principle of
separation of powers. It was this section of the law that was nullified by the circuit courts.57 The
basis for the objections was the fact that the law did not recognize that the federal courts were
For a general discussion of this theory and an analysis of the actual cases involved see REBUTTAL supra note 36.
2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792).
The Supreme Court decided these cases on Feb. 14 and Feb. 17, 1794 respectively. Dallas did not report these
cases. Nevertheless, they are found in 11 ANNALS OF CONGRESS 903-04 (1802). REBUTTAL supra note 36, at n.2.
The Invalid Acts were statutes which provided pensions for disabled veterans of the Revolutionary War. The
federal government had taken over this responsibility from the states in 1789, and paid the pensions under regulations
promulgated by the President. The law of 1789 only appropriated money for one year, so Congress enacted new bills in
1790 and 1791 to extend those payments. Id. at 63.
Act of March 23, 1792, ch. 11, § 4, 1 Stat. 218 (obsolete) entitled “An Act to provide for the settlement of the
Claims of Widows and Orphans barred by the limitations heretofore established, and to regulate the Claims of Invalid
REBUTTAL at 63. The Secretary of War would place the names of claimants to pensions on the list with this
proviso: “Provided always, that in any case, where the said Secretary shall have cause to suspect imposition or mistake,
he shall have power to withhold the name of such applicant from the pension list and then report this to Congress. Id.
judicial, and neither Congress nor the President could constitutionally assign the judiciary any
duties, but such as are properly judicial, and to be performed in a judicial manner. 58
The Supreme Court refused to proceed on the case and the following day, April 13, 1792,
William Hayburn reported this to Congress. A subsequent discussion arose where it was noted:
This being the first instance in which a court of justice had declared a law of
Congress to be unconstitutional, the novelty of the case produced a variety of
opinions with respect to the measures to be taken on the occasion. At length a
committee of five was appointed to inquire into the facts contained in the
memorial, and to report thereon. 59
Representative William Murray even suggested to Congress that it enact a law which would
provide some regular mode whereby federal judges shall give official notice of their refusal to act
under any law of Congress, on the ground of unconstitutionality. 60
Congress responded not with outrage over a perceived usurpation of power by the
Judiciary, but rather by passing a new statute concerning invalid pensions in February of 1793. 61
This new statute sought to correct the operation of the review for mistakes by taking the power
away from the Secretary of War and giving it to Congress, and by providing some review to the
Supreme Court. This did not necessarily cure the defect though.
In 1794 the issue came before the Supreme Court in the Chandler and Todd cases. The
cases are unreported and not that much is known about the facts of the particular cases, especially
Whereas all five members of the Supreme Court, in letters to President Washington, expressed serious doubts
as to the constitutionality of the law, only the middle circuit voided it. Id. at 65
3 ANNALS OF CONG. 556
Id. cited in REBUTTAL supra note 36, at 66.
Act of Feb. 28, 1793, ch. 17, 1 Stat. 324 (expired), entitled “An Act to regulate the Claims of Invalid
the Chandler case, but their outcome can be reported on with reasonable certainty. The Supreme
Court had nullified the 1792 and 1793 statutes for exactly the same reasons that were stated by the
middle court two years earlier. 62 Congress once again deferred to the Court by passing yet
another revised Invalid Pension statute in February of 1794. The new bill removed the provisions
for review of the judges’ determinations by the Secretary of War or by Congress. The
determinations of the judges were to stand. Congress, by its actions, and lack of objection,
implicitly accepted the constitutional adjudication of the Courts.63
Faced with all this evidence, one would be hard pressed to maintain that judicial review
was invented by John Marshall in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison. The question therefore remains
why did Marshall do what he did. If judicial review was a fundamental part of the American legal
psyche, why did Marshall take such pain to pronounce this policy in the most forceful language?
Why did he go to such extraordinary lengths to construe Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789
to be unconstitutional when an alternative construction was available to him that did not reach a
constitutional conflict? Why did he construe Article III of the Constitution so narrowly as to find
such a conflict when a broader reading of the Constitution would also have vitiated the need for a
constitutional determination? Why indeed?
See REBUTTAL at 70.
Political Chicanery as Historical Icon
The answers to the above questions lie in the political story behind Marbury v. Madison.
The political events of the first years of the nineteenth century are what created the compelling
need for Marshall to do what he did. The great precedent for judicial review (i.e., Marbury) was,
in its time, just an exercise in naked partisanship and political damage control. It was an accident
of history that created this fable worthy of Aesop. A legend that subsequent Courts have
employed to expand the power of the Supreme Court to dimensions unimagined by Marshall or
The story64 is actually an amusing one viewed with the dispassion that nearly two hundred
years will bring. At the time though it was as intense and emotional as a political issue could get,
but not for the reasons one would expect.
The story begins with the elections of 1800. In the Presidential and Congressional
election of 1800 something happened in the new republic that had not happened before: the
incumbent ruling party had lost the election and been thrown out of power. The Federalist
candidate, President John Adams, had lost his bid for reelection. Along with the loss of the
Presidency the Federalist party had also lost their majority in both houses of Congress. The
victors were the (Democratic-) Republicans led by President-Elect Thomas Jefferson. The decade
of the 1790’s saw a rift develop between the once united revolutionaries. Simply put, on the one
hand there were the Federalists, led for the most part by Alexander Hamilton. The Federalists
The foregoing narrative is principally derived from D. DEWEY, MARSHALL VERSUS JEFFERSON: THE
POLITICAL BACKGROUND TO MARBURY V. MADISON, (1970), which is the only scholarly book devoted exclusively to
the topic. Additional references come from A. BEVERIDGE, THE LIFE OF JOHN MARSHALL, vol. III (1919), and R.
ELLIS, THE JEFFERSONIAN CRISIS: COURTS AND POLITICS IN THE NEW REPUBLIC, (1971).
were aristocratic in their approach to government. They believed, in varying degrees, in a strong
central government controlled by an elite group who would know what was best for the country.
On the other hand were the Republicans (also known as the Jeffersonians), who believed strongly
in states’ rights and in the principles of the French Revolution, (i.e. aristocracy is an evil, and the
government’s function should not be to protect inherited wealth).
As stated, the election of 1800 ousted the Federalist party from dominance of the federal
government and set the stage for the first true transfer of power the new nation was to experience.
The Federalists, however, were determined not to go “gently into that good night.” The election
was held in November of 1800, but the transfer of power was not to occur until March 4, 1801.
During the lame duck period of the Adams’ administration prior to Jefferson’s inauguration the
Federalists hatched a plan to retrench to the only bastion of power left to them, the federal
judiciary. In January of 1801 Adams named, then Secretary of State, John Marshall to replace
John Jay as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This move was not only a way of preserving
Federalist power, but more than that, it laid down the gauntlet to the Jeffersonians. John Marshall
was not only a Federalist but also a lifelong enemy of Thomas Jefferson. Marshall’s long standing
antagonism for Jefferson would certainly make his advancement to a lifetime position in
Washington an enduring unpleasant irritant for the incoming President and his Republican
Interestingly enough, however, is that Marshall was not very popular with his own party
for the very reasons that should have made him a palatable choice to the Republicans. Most
Federalists thought that Marshall was far too congenial. He positioned himself squarely in the
moderate wing of the Federalist majority when he served in Congress, while his Virginia
background made him an easy target for the more hard line New England Federalists. He looked
to George Washington for his political ideals rather than Alexander Hamilton. Although this
irritated some of his Federalist contemporaries, it turned out to be a brilliant political choice
because at the time not even Jefferson himself would openly attack George Washington. This
political astuteness served to make him an even more formidable foe to Jefferson.
The feud between the two men for the most part remains unexplained. On the surface it
seemed that if there was any Federalist that could have gotten along with Jefferson and the
Republicans it would have been John Marshall. Compared to the other leading Federalists like
Hamilton or Fisher Ames or Timothy Pickering, he was extraordinarily conciliatory. For some
reason the two men despised each other despite coming from very similar backgrounds. Both
were from Virginia, in fact they were third cousins. Both went to the same law school (College of
William and Mary) and they both studied under the same teacher (George Wythe). From this
similar background it is hard to see how they came to feel such enmity towards each other.
It is possible that Marshall, in part, married into his antagonism for Jefferson. Marshall
married the daughter of Rebecca Ambler, an early love of Jefferson who was later spurned.
Thomas Jefferson thus was quite possibly regarded as a cad by the entire Ambler Family. The
two men’s differences appear to be more related to personality and style rather than pure political
ideology. Both were influenced by the ideas of John Locke and David Hume. Both were
believers in limited government and natural rights. Their differences were usually a matter of
degrees rather than being polar opposites. Both believed in representative government but each
interpreted it differently. Jefferson saw centralization as the principal threat to this form of
government whereas Marshall saw fragmentation as the principal threat. (Jefferson believed that
Marshall was an advocate of monarchy or at least aristocracy, while Marshall felt that Jefferson
was leading an uneducated rabble to political dominance). Against this backdrop the political
theater of Marbury v. Madison was to be played.
The outgoing Federalists were determined not only to hold on to their control of the
federal courts but to strengthen it. The means by which they chose to accomplish this was
through a sweeping overhaul of the entire federal judicial court system. Most everyone agreed
that the federal court system was in need of reform. The Federalists, for one reason or another
never got around to doing this when it would not have caused political warfare. The
organizational structure of the federal judiciary at that time was set up according to the Judiciary
Act of 1789, passed by the first Congress pursuant to Article III of the Constitution. This act had
made several blunders, chief among them was the fact that the Supreme Court justices were
required to “ride the circuit,” or in other words to serve as Circuit Court judges in addition to their
duties on the high court. In practical terms this meant that, in their capacity as Supreme Court
justices, they were required to hear appeals on the very cases which they themselves had decided
on the lower Circuit Court level.
Along with this legal anomaly was the fact that “riding the circuit” was not an activity that
suited the justices well. Transportation at the time left much to be desired. It was a long,
arduous, and dangerous proposition for even the heartiest of men let alone the men of advancing
years that typically made up the Supreme Court. Both the Executive and Judicial branches
disliked this state of affairs but never got around to doing anything about it in a timely and
agreeable way. Never, that is, until the lame duck period of the Adams administration and, as it
turned out, timely and agreeable it was not.
The Federalists, in their last scramble for power, completely revised the federal judiciary
by means of the Judiciary Act of 1801 (the “Reform Act”), passed by Congress in January and
February of 1801 and signed by President Adams on February 13. A mere 19 days before
Jefferson was to assume office and the Republicans were to get control of both houses of
Congress, the Federalists completely changed the federal judicial structure. Among other things,
the Reform Act relieved the Supreme Court justices of their Circuit Court duties while it also
reduced the number of justices on the high Court to five (presumably to avoid any chance of a tie
but also to deprive Jefferson of a Republican appointee).
The Reform Act, although generally a commendable piece of legislation, suffered from
abominable timing. It had, quite justifiably, the stench of dirty politics fueled by its last minute,
lame duck passage. It allowed Adams, if he did not delay, to appoint 16 Circuit Court judges,
plus a number of marshals and district attorneys. In addition “An Act concerning the District of
Columbia” passed even closer to the last day of the Adams administration, providing for the
appointment of three judges to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia and an unlimited
number of justices of the peace and other officials. In his last month in office, Adams placed 217
nominations before the Senate, 53 of these were appointed to offices in the District of Columbia
including one William Marbury. Not only were virtually all of these new appointees “right
thinking” Federalists, but Adams also sought to make sure that any Federalist who occupied a
pre-existing judicial position that might be contemplating retirement, do so before March 4 in
order for the position to be filled with another Federalist rather than allow Jefferson to fill the post
with a Republican.
Needless to say the Republicans were not amused by this bit of political chicanery.
Within a week of the Reform Act’s passage there were Republican grumblings about the
possibility of repeal. The Republicans were about to assume control of both houses of Congress
and the Presidency. Although Jefferson could not remove these “midnight judges,” the legislative
act that created their positions could be repealed. Jefferson would not publicly mention the matter
until the new Republican controlled congress was seated in December of 1801. Jefferson could,
however, hold up the delivery of any appointments not yet perfected. In the confusion of the last
days of the Adams administration not all of the commissions were physically delivered despite
being duly signed and sealed. William Marbury’s commission as a Justice of the Peace was, of
course, one of the commissions that weren’t delivered.
Jefferson finally made his intentions clear when he addressed the just seated Congress on
December 8, 1801. In his address he stated that “The judiciary system of the United States, and
especially that part of it recently enacted, will of course present itself to the contemplation of
Congress.” With this veiled reference Jefferson threw down a gauntlet and touched off a political
firestorm that would rage for nearly two years, and created a controversy over judicial review that
never would have occurred but for these particular circumstances and the political agendas that
were at stake.
The event that served to galvanize the Republican controlled congress into action on the
repeal matter was the fact that on December 21, a mere two weeks later, William Marbury,
represented by attorney Charles Lee, appeared before the Supreme Court seeking a Writ of
Mandamus to command Secretary of State Madison to deliver the commission that was owed to
him. The next day Marshall issued an Order to Show Cause to Madison why the writ should not
be issued (Madison ignored the order). Argument was set for the next term, which should have
been August 1802 but turned out to be February 1803 for reasons that were political in nature.
This lawsuit outraged the Republicans in Congress (not to mention Jefferson himself). They saw
this as a deliberate attempt to usurp power and insult the President perpetrated by his political
enemy, John Marshall. John Breckinridge, a leading Republican in Congress, remarked that it
was “a bold stroke against the executive authority of the government and a high-handed exertion
of judicial power.” The Republicans felt provoked into action and the debate over the repeal of
the Reform Act began in earnest.
This debate ran from January to March of 1802. In contrast to the days of the Republicans
being the opposition minority in Congress, the Federalists were loudly outspoken. They raised
two issues in the debate. First, could Congress abolish previously created courts and judicial
positions and; Second, if it could, what would become of the judges whose lifetime term was
established by the Constitution and was to be held “during good behavior?” It was obvious that
the second point was the stronger of the two and it was the one that received the most attention.
The debate that followed set the stage for Marshall’s decision in Marbury.
The Constitutional question was that if the judges held their office during good behavior,
without proof of less than good behavior, their positions were constitutionally protected. The
Federalists felt sure the Federal Judiciary could invalidate the repeal law because it removed from
office Article III judges whose behavior had been good. This argument put the Republicans in a
corner because the Federalists had a valid point. The Republicans’ response was that no court had
the power to invalidate the repeal law because judicial review of legislation was not a power
enumerated in Article III of the Constitution and therefore it did not exist.
This was a politically expedient argument. If the Republicans could win this argument it
would not matter that the Federalists controlled the judiciary, for the judiciary would be powerless
to affect the Republican legislative agenda. Both parties had a political stake in the outcome of
this debate. The argument that raged between the Republicans and the Federalists really didn’t
concern the greater concept of the structure and operation of our government for all time to come,
but appeared to be narrowly framed as a partisan struggle for political power at that time. What
occurred though was that both parties hardened their respective positions and a controversy over
judicial review that really shouldn’t have arisen in the first place wound up degenerating into a
months long political battle waged on the floor of the Congress a whole year prior to the decision
Whether the Republicans truly believed their rhetoric about judges not being empowered
to invalidate laws that were unconstitutional is subject to varying interpretations. A valid
argument can be made that they did not actually believe this. The Republicans passed the Repeal
Act on March 3, 1802. If they truly did not believe that the Supreme Court was empowered to
rule on its constitutionality, they had a peculiar way of showing it. The next month, after almost
no debate, Congress amended the then restored Judiciary Act of 1789. The amendment called for
the abolition of the August and December terms of the Supreme Court. The Court was now to
meet annually just once, in February. The consequence of this action was that it effectively put
the Supreme Court out of business for fourteen months (and delayed the case of Marbury v.
Madison until February, 1803). By virtue of this amendment, Congress prevented a timely
judicial response to the Repeal Act. The fact that the Republicans took such preemptive action is
fairly indicative that they believed the Supreme Court could review the constitutionality of the
The battle over judicial review, however, was not won or even fought for that matter over
the Repeal Act. The Supreme Court never did rule on the matter choosing instead to accept the
defeat of the Federalist judicial retrenchment plan. Considering the political frailty of the
Federalists at that time, had they tried to rule it unconstitutional history might have a much
different tale to tell with respect to the role of the Judiciary in the checks and balances of our
government. While the best laid plans of the Republicans seemed to have cornered John
Marshall, the battle was actually fought and won over the case of the “midnight Justices of the
Peace” who did not get their commissions, or “the mandamus case” as it was called at the time.
Strangely, although the battle was won on this front, almost nobody at the time truly realized it or
recognized that it was even fought. For the most part, this great and significant historical event
emanated from a matter of such insignificant minutia that its final disposition meant virtually
nothing to the principals involved (but was extraordinarily significant with respect to the
Jefferson’s action in withholding the Justice of the Peace commissions was really just a
side show to the bigger fights of the day. The much larger and impassioned controversy was the
aforementioned judicial overhaul and Federalist stacking of the Article III Courts. The Justice of
the Peace commissions were such a minor matter that both the Republicans and the Federalists
acted with restraint (with the notable exceptions of William Marbury, Robert Towneshend Hooe,
The constitutionality of the Repeal Act did in fact come before the federal courts in the case of Stuart v. Laird, 5
U.S. (1 Cranch) 299 (1803). Marshall, sitting on the circuit court, dismissed the case on a writ of error. When it was
appealed to the Supreme Court Marshall recused himself (one of the only times he did so) because it was his case below.
Dennis Ramsay, and William Harper who filed the suit). Of the 42 commissions that were
undelivered when Jefferson took office, 25 were actually delivered by the Jefferson
administration. In fact, only 17 were held back. Three of the Federalist appointees actually
refused the commissions either because the stature of the office was beneath their dignity, or the
fact that they had to accept them from Jefferson was deemed insulting. Of the 17 commissions
that were denied only the aforementioned four men pressed the issue. Marbury himself was
certainly not in need of the meager salary the commission paid, for he was well enough off on his
own. It is likely that he pressed the case merely because he felt it was his duty to do so as a loyal
The significance of the case at the time had little to do with whether the Justices of Peace
got their commissions or not, nor did it even remotely concern judicial review, rather it was the
mandamus question that enraged the Republican’s and encouraged the Federalists. The issue
concerned the power of the Supreme Court in the early years of the new republic. In those early
days the Supreme Court was very weak compared to the other branches of the Federal
government. It controlled “neither the purse nor the sword” as Hamilton put it in Federalist #78.
This was not much of an issue in the very early days of the new republic because there was no
political division among the coordinate branches (all were controlled by the Federalists). But
after the election of 1800 the inevitable question as to the limits of power in the coordinate
branches finally came to a head. At issue was whether the Supreme Court could issue an order of
mandamus to the Executive branch. If it could this would mean that the Judicial branch would
possess a superior power to that of the Executive branch. This concept infuriated the Republicans
The rest of the Supreme Court also avoided the constitutional issue in the disposition of the case. The decision in this
case followed the decision in Marbury v. Madison by about a week.
because the Supreme Court was stacked with Federalists, led by a renowned enemy of Thomas
Jefferson. In retrospect the Republicans were probably less concerned that such a power existed
as opposed to the fact that John Marshall and his Federalist cronies would possess it.
Up until this time no one thought very highly of the Supreme Court because it hadn’t
really done much. It had no official residence of its own; in fact the Court was held in a small
office in what had once been the Senate Clerk’s office. So, as with the rest of this story, the
reasons why the events occurred as they did resulted from actions and motivations that were far
removed from the philosophical arguments of limited government and fundamental law.
The facts surrounding the case involve a fair degree of humor. The trial itself has been
referred to as a comic opera. The man whose negligence had actually caused the commissions not
to be delivered was the man who was presiding at trial, Chief Justice John Marshall himself. 66
Marshall had been Adams’ Secretary of State at the “midnight hour” back in February and March
of 1801. It was his responsibility to see that all of the commissions were received. The
commissions were complete (signed and sealed) except for delivery. In the hectic last days of the
Adam’s administration these commissions were somehow lost or misplaced.
As noted above, the case started on December 21, 1801 when Charles Lee, attorney for the
plaintiffs, sought the Writ of Mandamus to compel the Secretary of State, James Madison, to
produce the commissions. The Jefferson administration sent Attorney General Levi Lincoln to
the Court merely to say that he had nothing to say. Madison ignored the entire matter from the
start. Marshall issued the Order to Show Cause to Madison the next day and scheduled argument
There is evidence that suggests that as many as three associate justices did not take part. Marshall wrote the
opinion for the whole Court as he did in virtually all the cases the Court decided when it possessed Federalist unanimity.
for the next term (which turned out to be February, 1803). In the intervening time Marbury had
asked the now Republican Senate for evidence concerning the previous Senate’s confirmation of
his nomination. This once again angered the Republicans in Congress who felt that Marshall was
attempting to issue orders to Congress too, and they refused to comply.
At trial, Marbury’s case was virtually uncontested. Madison did not bother to show up.
Attorney-General Lincoln was there only as an observer and part-time witness. There was no
official account of the trial, only the unofficial report of volunteer court reporter William Cranch.
Cranch, in yet another irony of history, was himself one of the midnight judges who found
himself unemployed when the Republicans passed the Repeal Act and eliminated his court. It is
likely that Madison never even saw the commissions he was being sued for. Some have said that
it was likely that the commissions were thrown out with wastepaper when the office was cleaned
prior to the arrival of the Jefferson administration. Whatever it was that happened to them, they
were never found.
Lee called several witnesses in order to prove that the commissions did in fact exist. Of
course the best witness would have been John Marshall, who had been the last person in
possession of them. but of course Lee could not call him. Lee summoned two State Department
clerks, Chief Clerk Jacob Wagner and Daniel Brent, to testify but it turned out that they had pretty
bad memories. They remembered seeing some commissions but they were not sure whose name
was on them or what had become of them. Their memory lapse probably has something to do
with the fact that they were holdovers from the prior Federalist administrations and they did not
want to jeopardize their jobs at the now Republican State Department.
Lee then called Lincoln, who was the acting Secretary of State when Jefferson took over,
to answer his questions. Lincoln, of course, did not want to participate at all and made this
intention plain. He requested that the court respect his right not to incriminate himself or to
divulge matters pertaining to his official duties. He asked that the questions be submitted in
writing and that he be given a day to answer them. This request was honored, but when he came
back the next day with his answers, they did not reveal anything. A Federalist newspaper of the
time, The Washington Federalist, chided him, printing that “this great man who, when sworn in
the usual manner, was asked a simple question, but could not answer it until they gave it to him
in writing, and he went off and spent a whole day and night . . . behind closed doors, and then
only made out to remember that he had forgotten everything about it.”
Nevertheless Lee did prove, to the satisfaction of the Court, that the commissions existed.
Now it was up to John Marshall to do something about it. By this time, February 1803, it
appeared that Marshall was caught in a seemingly no-win situation. Jefferson and the
Republicans now had more to gain from this case than did Marshall and the Federalists. Either
Marshall’s decision would bring direct conflict between the Executive and the Judiciary at a time
when Thomas Jefferson held all the high cards, or the Court would be forced to expose its
weakness by validating the removal policies of Jefferson.
To decide this case against Jefferson would have been a very dangerous move. In the first
instance if the Writ of Mandamus was issued, Jefferson most probably would have ignored it.
The Supreme Court had no way of enforcing its decisions. Andrew Jackson, in 1832, once put it
succinctly when the Marshall Court did something he did not agree with. He stated that “John
Marshall has made his decision now let him go and enforce it.” Such a move on Jefferson’s part
during the infancy of the country would have exposed the inability of the Supreme Court to
enforce its mandate against an Executive who ignored it. 1803 was a much more dangerous time
for the Court to demonstrate weakness than was 1832. Judicial prestige would have been
shattered before it ever had a chance to take root. To further complicate matters for Marshall, the
Republicans in Congress were whipping themselves into a froth at the prospect of having a
pretext for instituting impeachment proceedings against the Federalist Court on the grounds of
partisanship. If Marshall had ordered the mandamus he stood a good chance of losing his job.
On the other hand, to decide this case against Marbury would vividly demonstrate that
judicial power was a mirage from which no preservation of Federalist principles could be
expected. Although this probably was a truism, a highly public humiliation, as it would have
been viewed at the time, would also have exposed the underlying weakness of the Court and
similarly shatter judicial prestige. It appeared that Marshall had no way out, but Marshall turned
out to be the master of snatching victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
Marshall’s resolution of the issue, for courage, statesmanlike foresight, and, indeed, for
perfectly calculated audacity, has few parallels in judicial history. In two weeks time (although
he did have the 14 month hiatus to think about it), he issued the opinion that all at once gave
Jefferson the decision he wanted, the tongue lashing that the Federalists wanted for him, and, in
no uncertain language, to the Supreme Court he gave the precedent for judicial review which he
so desperately wanted.
The decision was a lengthy one. It comprised some 11,000 words and 154 paragraphs
divided into three sections. In the first section Marshall asks if the applicant has a right to the
commission he demands. Marshall devotes 48 paragraphs to this question and concludes the
answer to this is yes, he does have a right to it. “That by signing the commission to Mr. Marbury,
the President of the United States appointed him a justice of peace for the county of Washington,
in the District of Columbia; and that the seal of the United States, affixed thereto by the Secretary
of State, is conclusive testimony of the verity of the appointment, and that the appointment
conferred on him a legal right to the office for the space of five years.”
In the second part of the opinion he asked “If he has a right, and that right has been
violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?” He answered this question in 28
paragraphs concluding that “having this legal title to office, he has a consequent right to the
commission; a refusal to deliver which is a plain violation of that right, for which the laws of his
country afford him a remedy.” It was in this section that Marshall shredded Jefferson, lecturing
the President at length about disobeying the laws of the country. To give added bite to this
scolding, Marshall made his point using language laden with Jeffersonian rhetoric. (Rights of the
people, limited government, etc.).
The third part of the opinion asked the question “if the laws of the country afford him a
remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?” Marshall answered this question in 32
paragraphs. He stated that Marbury was indeed entitled to a Writ of Mandamus but then added 46
paragraphs to explain why he could not have it. It is in this final part of the opinion where
Marshall established his precedent for judicial review. It is this pronouncement that today we are
taught created and established judicial review in the courts of the United States of America.
Marshall devised this precedent without relying on any cases that had reviewed statutes in
the past, (i.e. The Invalid Pensioners cases) even though he was certainly aware of them. His
arguments of why judicial review existed were nothing new. Most of it came directly out of
Federalist No. 78. Additionally, all of the arguments for and against judicial review had already
played on the floor of the Congress a full year prior to the decision during the debate over the
Repeal Act. Marshall just treated judicial review as an accomplished fact, which for the most part
it was. It was irrelevant that the merits of the case did not necessitate this constitutional finding
but rather it was the political implications that dictated it.
Marshall had to twist Section13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 in order to reach the point he
wanted to make. He could have easily construed the statute as not granting the Supreme Court
original jurisdiction to hear a mandamus case. In fact, the clause discussing mandamus occurs
within a sentence laying out the appellate jurisdiction of the Court. He could have dismissed the
case on the grounds that the Court could only hear the case on appeal. He also did not have to
construe Article III of the Constitution so narrowly as to insure a constitutional clash. In fact
Marshall was known for giving very broad constructions to the Constitution in all opinions
subsequent to Marbury.
The point was that he did not want to avoid the constitutional clash. Marbury v. Madison
turned into his opportunity to pronounce, once and for all, in a decision of the Supreme Court, the
power of judicial review, and to do it in such a way that he was untouchable as far as political
backlash was concerned. If the pronouncement of judicial review had occurred in Stuart v. Laird,
(the case concerning the Repeal Act of 1802), Marshall might have been impeached by the
Republicans in Congress along with the rest of the Federalists on the Court. But by establishing
the precedent for judicial review in the context of a decision favorable to Jefferson, his
accomplishment was impenetrable. Most observers at the time did not realize the significance of
the event. Invalidating Section13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was the only new wrinkle Marshall
added to the debate of judicial review.
The newspapers of the time clearly misunderstood the significance of what had happened.
Most of the papers, both Republican and Federalist just printed the decision verbatim. Most
Republican newspapers either printed the decision without editorial comment, or gloated over the
victory of the President on the mandamus question because, after all was said, the Writ of
Mandamus was not issued.
The Federalist newspapers seemed to be more impressed with the length of the decision
rather than its content. They were as clueless to its import as the general public was. The
Alexandria Gazette interpreted the decision to mean that the Court could not grant mandamus in
Washington D.C., but if the question arose in one of the states there would have been no problem.
Other Federalist newspapers were mostly excited by the tongue lashing that Marshall gave
With the hindsight of history it is difficult to imagine how little understood the decision
was. This probably occurred because judicial review was not at the core of this case. Judicial
review was at the center of the debate over the Repeal Act, and that had played out over a year
earlier. The Republicans won that fight, and the passions over the issue had substantially cooled.
Those passions were not reignited by what Marshall did. The statute that he invalidated was an
arcane bit of judicature that no one, Federalist or Republican, cared much about. The
Republicans perceived this event as having no relation to, or affect upon, their political agenda
and, at the time, they were right.
Even the concept of judicial review that was established was rather limited. The only
notion of finality which legitimately may be drawn from the opinion appears to be that which
results from the fact that the statutory provision invalidated in the case is one which pertains to
the Court’s performance of its own functions.67 The judicial review holding solely concerned
jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and did not affect any popular bit of legislation.
The limited exercise of judicial review that Marshall pronounced only concerned judicial
independence, which was something the Jeffersonians begrudgingly accepted. Had they realized
that it established a precedent that has justified the type of judicial review the Court exercises
today, (i.e, judicial superiority over the other two branches of government), they might not have
been so complacent. Jefferson, in later years would write that the part of the opinion that most
riled him was not the assertion of judicial review but rather the lecture he received from Marshall,
and the fact that the opinion stated that the Court could have, and would have, issued the
mandamus to the Executive if it had had jurisdiction.
Several events happened subsequent to Marbury that knocked the issue right out of the
spotlight. Within months Jefferson was entangled with the Louisiana Purchase, problems on the
frontier, problems with Spain, and the Aaron Burr affair, to name just a few. Marbury rapidly
faded from view. This was no accident because Marshall intentionally left the decision alone. He
never would cite it for the preposition that the Supreme Court has the final say over what is the
law of the land.
Clinton, The Strange History of Marbury v. Madison in the Supreme Court of the United States, 8 ST. L. UNIV. PUB. L.
REV. 13, 24 (1989).
Marbury v. Madison as cited by the Supreme Court
The proposition that what Marbury stood for was very limited must have been shared by
the Supreme Court during the 19th century. During Marshall’s tenure on the court there were
only ten references to Marbury.68 Nine are jurisdictional in nature, reinforcing holdings as to the
distribution of jurisdiction contained in Article III. 69 The remaining reference is made in support
of the ruling that Writs of Mandamus may issue to executive officials only when engaged in the
performance of purely ministerial duties.70
Further support for the idea that the Court’s decision in Marbury was viewed by
Marshall’s contemporaries as but a step in the continuous clarification of the restrictive theory of
judicial function, rather than an explosive decision establishing the power of judicial review is
provided by examining the character of other constitutional decisions rendered by the Marshall
Court in the early years.71 An examination of constitutional cases throughout the remainder of
the Marshall period tends to confirm the pattern set forth by the Court in the early years. 72 In
substantive areas, the Court allowed wide latitude to the discretion of the people’s representatives
Id. at 28.
Ex Parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 75, 100 (1807); Id, at 102-05 (Johnson, J., dissenting); McClung v.
Silliman I, 15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 369, 370-71 (1817); Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264, 394, 399-402 (1821);
McClung v. Silliman II, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 598, 604 (1821); United States v. Ortega, 24 U.S. (11 Wheat.) 468, 471
(1826); Ex Parte Crane, 30 U.S. 190, 200, 202-04, 206, 208-210, 217, 219 (1831) (Baldwin, J., dissenting); Ex Parte
Watkins, 32 U.S. 568, 572-73 (1833); Harrison v. Nixon, 34 U.S. 483, 510 (1835) (Baldwin, J., dissenting). Cited in
Clinton at n. 86.
United States v. Arredondo, 31 U.S. 691, 729-30 (1832).
Clinton supra note 67, at 28, Clinton maintains that the entire constitutional output of the Court between 1801
and 1810, with the exception of two cases, dealt with purely jurisdictional issues. Four involved the federal diversity
jurisdiction, three (including Marbury ) decided questions pertaining to Article III’s original/appellate distribution, three
involved the general jurisdiction of the federal courts. Eight of these decisions (again including Marbury ) may be
plausibly construed as having narrowed the scope of federal judicial power, lending support to the proposition that selfrestraint and extreme caution in asserting jurisdiction characterized the Supreme Court from 1801-1815. Id.
Id, at 29.
in Congress,73 and in the states as well, 74 unless explicit violations of relatively unambiguous
constitutional limitations were evident. 75 The preponderance of these decisions hardly reveals a
Court desirous of expanding its authority at the expense of Congress, the Executive branch, or the
states themselves. Rather they demonstrate a Court somewhat deferential to democracy, yet
prepared to defend individual’s rights against clear-cut excesses of government.76
In the years following Marshall’s tenure on the Court until the end of the Civil War,
Marbury is cited in fifteen separate opinions in the United States Reports. Once again the largest
number of citations is found in the jurisdictional area. 77 Six concern nuances in the mandamus
remedy,78 but none of them even mention judicial review. 79 The Taney Court for the most part
continued Marshall’s policy of a limited judicial role with but one notable exception.
One of history’s greatest paradoxes is the fact that the case that truly set the precedent for
the Supreme Court having the power to nullify popular legislative acts (i.e., ones that do not
concern judicial function), is the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford . 80 This is the infamous decision
by the Supreme Court that outlawed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Court ruled that the
See, e.g. McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819); Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1
(1824); United States v. Fisher, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 358 (1805); The Flying Fish, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 170 (1804). See
Clinton supra note 67 at n.97.
See, e.g., Willson v. Blackbird Creek Marsh Co., 27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 245 (1829); Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7
Pet.) 243 (1833); Providence Bank v. Billings, 27 U.S. (4 Pet.) 514 (1830).
See, e.g. Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cranch) 87 (1810); Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4
Wheat.) 518 (1819); Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 122 (1819). See Clinton supra note 67, at 29.
Clinton, supra note 67, at 30.
Ex Parte Whitney, 38 U.S. 404, 407 (1839); In re Metzger, 46 U.S. 176, 191 (1847); United States v. Chicago,
48 U.S. 185, 197 (1849) (Catron, J., dissenting); In re Kaine, 55 U.S. 103, 119 (1852); Florida v. Georgia, 58 U.S. 496,
505 (1854) (Curtis, J., dissenting); Ex parte, Wells, 59 U.S. 316, 317 (1855) (McClean, J., dissenting); Ex parte
Vallandigham, 68 U.S. 243, 252 (1863); Daniels v. Railroad Co., 70 U.S. 250, 254 (1865).
Kendall v. United States, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 527, 617-18 (1838); Id. at 651 (Barbour, J., dissenting); Id. at 38
U.S. 609-12 (Catron, J., dissenting); Decatur v. Paulding, 39 U.S. 497, 513 (1840); Id. at 602 (Baldwin, J., dissenting);
Reeside v. Walker, 52 U.S. 272, 291-92 (1850)
Clinton supra note 67, at 30.
Compromise was null and void because Congress did not possess the constitutional power to
outlaw slavery in the new territories, and that such an act was an unconstitutional invasion of
property rights. It is important to note for purposes of this discussion that the Supreme Court did
NOT cite Marbury v. Madison as the precedent for its exercise of judicial review in the Dred
Scott decision. It is not hard to see why Dred Scott never became the modern precedent for
judicial review. The activist Courts of the latter part of the twentieth century found it much easier
looking to the oratory of the “Great Chief Justice” to support the sweeping judicial activism in
which it engaged rather than cite the most infamous decision in the Court’s history, the decision
that held that slaves were merely property and not people within the contemplation of the
Between the years 1803 and 1865 the Court had, without exception, read Marbury v.
Madison as having settled either a narrow jurisdictional question, or a technical issue relating to
the mandamus remedy. Marbury’s importance as a precedent for judicial review of legislation
was never mentioned by the Court, not even in the only other case of the period wherein the Court
invalidated an act of Congress. This pattern continued during the period extending from 1865
through 1894. During these years the Court invalidated national laws in no fewer than twenty
cases,81 yet Marbury is not cited in any of them. 82
60 U.S. (19 How.) 1.
Gordon v. United States 69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 561 (1865); Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333 (1866); Reichart
v. Phelps, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 160 (1868); The Alicia, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 571 (1869); Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. (8
Wall.) 603 (1870); United States v. DeWitt, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 41 (1870); The Justices v. Murray, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 274
(1870); Collector v. Day, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 113 (1871); United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 128 (1872); United
States v. Railroad Co., 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 322 (1873); United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1876); United States v.
Fox, 95 U.S. 670 (1878); The Trade Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1879); United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629 (1883); The
Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883); Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886); Baldwin v. Franks, 120 U.S. 678
(1887); Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540 (1888); Counselman v. Hitchcock, 142 U.S. 547 (1892); Monongahela
Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U.S. 312 (1893).
Clinton supra note 67, at 32.
During that time period the instances where Marbury is cited relate primarily to the
jurisdictional area, or to the mandamus remedy. A few of the citations refer to Marbury’s
distinction between political and ministerial acts of administrative officials. Two refer to the
technical finality of acts within the Executive discretion. One refers to the equitable right/remedy
maxim announced in the first section of the opinion. 83 Finally, it was not until 1887 in Mugler v.
Kanas84 that the Supreme Court, for the first time, cited Marbury v. Madison as precedent for the
idea that courts may enforce constitutional limitations on legislative bodies.
Professor Clinton asserts that the Court’s use of Marbury in this instance was
inappropriate. He first claims that the Court used a passage of Marshall’s opinion that originally
stood for the premise that legislative acts contrary to the Constitution are void, to support the
proposition that the courts have the power to refuse application of them. Second, adding insult to
injury, the Court in Mugler then proceeds to employ Marbury in the service of the developing the
doctrine of substantive due process by stating that “the courts are not bound by mere forms, nor
are they to be misled by mere pretenses. They are at liberty – indeed, are under a solemn duty look at the substance of things, whenever they enter upon the inquiry whether the legislature has
transcended the limits of its authority.”85 The foreshadowing to the Lochner era of substantive
due process is a clear indication of the direction in which the Court was heading, and its use (or
rather misuse) of Marbury in this context was the first link in a long chain of opinions that
created the legend (or myth, as Professor Clinton prefers to call it) of Marbury v. Madison.86
See id. at 33 and notes 119-23.
123 U.S. 623, 661 (1887).
Id., at 661, cited in Clinton, supra note 67, at 34.
All this occurs in a passage that was essentially obiter dicta, since the actual decision in Mugler was merely the
upholding of a state prohibition on manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages. Clinton supra note 67, at 34
The first time the Court officially cites Marbury v. Madison as precedent for an actual
exercise of its power to invalidate acts of Congress occurs in the Income Tax Case 87 in 1897. In
that case, the Court cites Marbury to support the idea that “it is within judicial competency by
express provisions of the Constitution or by necessary inference and implication, to determine
whether a given law of the United States is or is not made in pursuance of the Constitution, and to
hold it valid or void accordingly.”88
In sum, for the first hundred years or thereabout, at least as far as the Supreme Court was
concerned, Marbury v. Madison did not mean what it has come to mean today. It was only in the
twentieth century, and especially the latter part thereof that Marbury became the standard bearer
for an activist Court. Between 1895 and 1957, Marbury is cited only 38 times, hardly more often
than during the thirty year period immediately preceding 1895. 89 Of these 38 references only
eight pertain to the judicial power to invalidate laws. 90
It is fair to say then that although the Court began to notice Marbury’s judicial review
holding during the first half of the twentieth century, it continued to recognize the restrictive
nature of that holding. Nowhere is there anything even approaching a declaration that the Court is
the “final arbiter of constitutional questions.”91 On a broader scale, of the ninety-two citations of
Marbury by Justices of the Supreme Court between 1803 and 1957, only ten refer to that part of
157 U.S. 429, 554 (1894).
Id., cited in Clinton, supra note 67, at 35.
Id., at 36.
Fairbank v. United States, 181 U.S. 283, 285 (1900); Dooley v. United States, 183 U.S. 151, 173 (1901)
(Fuller, J., dissenting); Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 357 (1910); Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 139
(1926); Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 90 (1946) (Black, J., dissenting); United States v. Commodities
Corporation, 339 U.S. 121, 124 (1949); Touhy v. Ragen, 340 U.S. 462, 468 (1950); Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills,
353 U.S. 448, 464 (1956) (Frankfurter, J., dissenting).
Clinton supra note 67, at 38.
the Marshall opinion which has been said to have established the power of judicial review.
Marbury, at least throughout most of its history in the Supreme Court of the United States, has
been thought primarily to have settled other matters. 92
What the Supreme Court of the United States has done subsequent to 1957, with respect to
Marbury, stands as a radical departure from what was done prior to that year. Between 1958 and
1983 there are 89 separate citations of Marbury, a total which almost equals that of the previous
154 years.93 Of these 89, fifty utilize Marbury in support of some kind of judicial review. Of
these fifty, at least eighteen read Marbury as having justified sweeping assertions of judicial
authority.94 In addition, of these eighteen, nine cite Marbury in order to support the idea that the
Court is the “final” or “ultimate” interpreter of the Constitution, with the power to issue binding
proclamations to any other agency or department of government with respect to any constitutional
issue.95 It would thus appear that the legend that is Marbury v. Madison was established not by
John Marshall or his contemporaries, but rather was established and developed by the Warren and
Burger Courts. Modern constitutional scholars for the most part have just accepted the fable the
Warren Court told.
Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, 18 (1958); Clay v. Sun Insurance Office, 363 U.S. 207, 222 (1959) (Black, J.,
dissenting); Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 626 (1959) (Black, J., dissenting); Hutcheson v. United States, 369
U.S. 599, 632 (1961) (Warren, C.J., dissenting); Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, 370 U.S. 530, 602 (1961) (Douglas, J.,
dissenting); Bell v. Maryland 378 U.S. 226, 244 (1963); Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 503 (1968); Id. at 549;
Id. at 552 (Douglas, J.); Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 274 (1969) (Black, J., dissenting); Oregon v. Mitchell, 400
U.S. 112, 204 (1970) (Harlan, J., dissenting); McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183, 250 (1970) (Brennan, J., dissenting);
Doe v. McMillan, 412 U.S. 306, 326 (1972) (Douglas, J., concurring); United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 443
(1975) (Marshall, J., dissenting); United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 45 (1976) (Marshall, Brennan, JJ., dissenting);
Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 503 (1977) (Powell, J., concurring); City of Rome v.
United States, 446 U.S. 156, 207 (1979) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting); INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 942 (1982). Cited in
Clinton supra note 67, at n. 172.
Cooper v. Aaron; Flemming v. Nestor; Glidden Co. v. Zdanok; Powell v. McCormack; Goldberg v. Kelly; Doe v.
McMillan; Nixon v. Administrator of General Services; City of Rome v. United States; INS v. Chadha; supra note 94.
As previously stated, it is easy to understand why Marbury was used in this manner by the
activist Warren and Burger Courts. The true precedent for the type of judicial review that was
invoked by these Courts was the Dred Scott case. Were it not for Marbury and Marshall’s
eloquence and stature as the “Great Chief Justice,” the “Expounder of the Constitution” the
precedent quite possibly would have had to have been Dred Scott. This certainly would have
produced one of history’s great and perverse ironies. The Warren and Burger Courts, which
achieved so much in the area of civil rights and school desegregation, would have had to rely on
the infamous decision that held that the black slaves were not people within the contemplation of
the Constitution, in order to empower themselves to do it. 96
The only irony that approaches that magnitude is the legendary myth that permeates the
current state of constitutional law, namely that the power of judicial review, as exercised by the
Supreme Court of the United States, was conceived by, and originates from, John Marshall’s
opinion in the case of Marbury v. Madison. And like other historic fables, students of
Constitutional Law will likely still be taught this on the first day of class, and scholarly articles to
the contrary probably will not change this state of affairs. An examination of the recent Court
opinions, especially the nine mentioned above, reveals that each case, save Cooper, involved
either the internal functioning of Congress, the internal functioning of the Executive, or the
relation between the two.97 In other words, each appears to constitute precisely the sort of case to
which the historical Marbury bears no relation. This suggests that Marbury has indeed become a
In the History of the Supreme Court there is only one citation that mentions Dred Scott v. Sandford and Marbury
v. Madison in the same context and that case is Blyew v. United States, 80 U.S. 581 (1871) where the Court just notes
that these were the only two cases, until that time, that had held an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
myth; one which, like Plato’s ignoble lie, imparts a flavor of time-honored truth to what really is a
quite modern notion of judicial guardianship. 98
Clinton supra note 67, at 43.
Marbury v. Madison
5 U.S. 137
Marbury v. Madison ()
The clerks of the Department of State of the United States may be called upon to give evidence of
transactions in the Department which are not of a confidential character.
The Secretary of State cannot be called upon as a witness to state transactions of a confidential
nature which may have occurred in his Department. But he may be called upon to give testimony
of circumstances which were not of that character.
Clerks in the Department of State were directed to be sworn, subject to objections to questions
upon confidential matters.
Some point of time must be taken when the power of the Executive over an officer, not removable
at his will, must cease. That point of time must be when the constitutional power of appointment
has been exercised. And the power has been exercised when the last act required from the
person possessing the power has been performed. This last act is the signature of the
If the act of livery be necessary to give validity to the commission of an officer, it has been
delivered when executed, and given to the Secretary of State for the purpose of being sealed,
recorded, and transmitted to the party.
In cases of commissions to public officers, the law orders the Secretary of State to record them.
When, therefore, they are signed and sealed, the order for their being recorded is given, and,
whether inserted inserted into the book or not, they are recorded.
When the heads of the departments of the Government are the political or confidential officers of
the Executive, merely to execute the will of the President, or rather to act in cases in which the
Executive possesses a constitutional or legal discretion, nothing can be more perfectly clear than
that their acts are only politically examinable. But where a specific duty is assigned by law, and
individual rights depend upon the performance of that duty, it seems equally clear that the
individual who considers himself injured has a right to resort to the laws of his country for a
The President of the United States, by signing the commission, appointed Mr. Marbury a justice of
the peace for the County of Washington, in the District of Columbia, and the seal of the United
States, affixed thereto by the Secretary of State, is conclusive testimony of the verity of the
signature, and of the completion of the appointment; and the appointment conferred on him a legal
right to the office for the space of five years. Having this legal right to the office, he has a
consequent right to the commission, a refusal to deliver which is a plain violation of that right for
which the laws of the country afford him a remedy.
To render a mandamus a proper remedy, the officer to whom it is directed must be one to whom,
on legal principles, such writ must be directed, and the person applying for it must be without any
other specific remedy.
Where a commission to a public officer has been made out, signed, and sealed, and is withheld
from the person entitled to it, an action of detinue for the commission against the Secretary of
State who refuses to deliver it is not the proper remedy, as the judgment in detinue is for the thing
itself, or its value. The value of a public office, not to be sold, is incapable of being ascertained. It
is a plain case for a mandamus, either to deliver the commission or a copy of it from the record.
To enable the Court to issue a mandamus to compel the delivery of the commission of a public
office by the Secretary of State, it must be shown that it is an exercise of appellate jurisdiction, or
that it be necessary to enable them to exercise appellate jurisdiction.
It is the essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a
cause already instituted, and does not create the cause.
The authority given to the Supreme Court by the act establishing the judicial system of the United
States to issue writs of mandamus to public officers appears not to be warranted by the
It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the
rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret the rule. If two laws conflict with
each other, the Court must decide on the operation of each.
If courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the
legislature, the Constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both
At the December Term, 1801, William Marbury, Dennis Ramsay, Robert Townsend Hooe, and
William Harper, by their counsel, [p138] severally moved the court for a rule to James Madison,
Secretary of State of the United States, to show cause why a mandamus should not issue
commanding him to cause to be delivered to them respectively their several commissions as
justices of the peace in the District of Columbia. This motion was supported by affidavits of the
following facts: that notice of this motion had been given to Mr. Madison; that Mr. Adams, the late
President of the United States, nominated the applicants to the Senate for their advice and
consent to be appointed justices of the peace of the District of Columbia; that the Senate advised
and consented to the appointments; that commissions in due form were signed by the said
President appointing them justices, &c., and that the seal of the United States was in due form
affixed to the said commissions by the Secretary of State; that the applicants have requested Mr.
Madison to deliver them their said commissions, who has not complied with that request; and that
their said commissions are withheld from them; that the applicants have made application to Mr.
Madison as Secretary of State of the United States at his office, for information whether the
commissions were signed and sealed as aforesaid; that explicit and satisfactory information has
not been given in answer to that inquiry, either by the Secretary of State or any officer in the
Department of State; that application has been made to the secretary of the Senate for a
certificate of the nomination of the applicants, and of the advice and consent of the Senate, who
has declined giving such a certificate; whereupon a rule was made to show cause on the fourth
day of this term. This rule having been duly served, [p139]
Mr. Jacob Wagner and Mr. Daniel Brent, who had been summoned to attend the court, and were
required to give evidence, objected to be sworn, alleging that they were clerks in the Department
of State, and not bound to disclose any facts relating to the business or transactions of the office.
The court ordered the witnesses to be sworn, and their answers taken in writing, but informed
them that, when the questions were asked, they might state their objections to answering each
particular question, if they had any.
Mr. Lincoln, who had been the acting Secretary of State, when the circumstances stated in the
affidavits occurred, was called upon to give testimony. He objected to answering. The questions
were put in writing.
The court said there was nothing confidential required to be disclosed. If there had been, he was
not obliged to answer it, and if he thought anything was communicated to him confidentially, he
was not bound to disclose, nor was he obliged to state anything which would criminate himself.
The questions argued by the counsel for the relators were, 1. Whether the Supreme Court can
award the writ of mandamus in any case. 2. Whether it will lie to a Secretary of State, in any case
whatever. 3. Whether, in the present case, the Court may award a mandamus to James Madison,
Secretary of State.
MARSHALL, C.J., Opinion of the Court
Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
At the last term, on the affidavits then read and filed with the clerk, a rule was granted in this case
requiring the Secretary of State to show cause why a mandamus [p154] should not issue directing
him to deliver to William Marbury his commission as a justice of the peace for the county of
Washington, in the District of Columbia.
No cause has been shown, and the present motion is for a mandamus. The peculiar delicacy of
this case, the novelty of some of its circumstances, and the real difficulty attending the points
which occur in it require a complete exposition of the principles on which the opinion to be given
by the Court is founded.
These principles have been, on the side of the applicant, very ably argued at the bar. In rendering
the opinion of the Court, there will be some departure in form, though not in substance, from the
points stated in that argument.
In the order in which the Court has viewed this subject, the following questions have been
considered and decided.
1. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
2. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a
3. If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?
The first object of inquiry is:
1. Has …
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