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Marbury v. Madison

Citation. 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803)
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Citation. 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L.Ed. 60 (1803)

Brief Fact Summary.

The day before Thomas Jefferson’s (Jefferson) presidential inauguration, President John Adams (President Adams) appointed William Marbury (Marbury) to a justice of the peace position. Marbury’s commission remained undelivered when Jefferson assumed the presidency the next day. Jefferson instructed his Secretary of State, James Madison (Madison), to withhold delivery. Marbury brought suit against Madison, seeking delivery of his commission.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Supreme Court has constitutional authority to review executive actions and legislative acts. However, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is limited by the U.S. Constitution.


Before Jefferson’s presidential inauguration, outgoing President Adams took steps to secure Federalist control of the judiciary by creating new judgeships and filling them with Federalist appointees and appointing 42 new justices of the peace in the District of Columbia. The justice of the peace commissions were signed by Adams the night before Jefferson took office. As such, several justices of the peace commissions remained undelivered when Jefferson assumed the presidency the next day. Jefferson instructed Madison, the new Secretary of State, to withhold delivery. Marbury and several others sought a writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court to compel Madison to deliver the commissions.


Is Marbury entitled to mandamus from the Supreme Court?


No. The Supreme Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (the Act) enabling Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III, Section 2, established.


Marbury has a right to the commission because it was signed by President Adams before he left office. However, the Constitution limits the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to “original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the supreme court shall have appellate jurisdiction.” Thus, the authority given to the Supreme Court by the Act establishing the judicial courts of the United States to issue writs of mandamus to public officers is not warranted by the Constitution. As such, to issue mandamus to the Secretary of State is outside the constitutional limits of jurisdiction imposed on the Supreme Court. Moreover, Congress did not have power to modify the Constitution through regular legislation because the Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws.

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