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A. The Marbury case itself: Which branch of the federal government shall have the final say in interpreting the Constitution? That is the principal question resolved by Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803), perhaps the cornerstone of American constitutional law.

1. Historical background of Marbury: The background of the case was a political struggle between John Adams and the Federalists, and his successor Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans. Just before leaving office, Adams appointed a number of new judges, including several justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. Commissions for these justices of the peace had been signed by Adams, but not yet delivered by the time he left office. The Jefferson Administration then refused to honor the appointments for which commissions had not actually been delivered prior to the end of Adams’ term.

2. Subject of suit: Several of the would-be justices of the peace, including William Marbury, brought suit directly in the Supreme Court. They sought a writ of mandamus compelling Jefferson’s Secretary of State (James Madison) to deliver their commissions.

3. Marshall’s decision: Justice Marshall’s opinion dealt with a number of issues, of which only the last gives the case its present significance.

a. Right to commission: First, Marshall decided that Marbury and the other justices did indeed become entitled to their commissions once these had been signed by the President (and sealed by the Secretary of State, who was none other than Marshall himself!) Marshall could have short-circuited the whole problem by ruling that delivery was required for validity, but he did not take this route.

b. Remedy: Secondly, Marshall had to decide whether Madison’s failure to deliver the commissions entitled the plaintiffs to some sort of remedy. Marshall distinguished between political acts, which are not reviewable by the courts, and acts specifically required by law, which are reviewable. The refusal to deliver the commissions, Marshall ruled, fell into this latter category.

c. Mandamus not allowed: Lastly, Marshall had to decide whether the particular remedy sought by the plaintiffs, an application for a writ of mandamus directly to the Supreme Court, could be granted.

i. Judiciary Act allows: The then-effective Judiciary Act provided that the Supreme Court would have jurisdiction “to issue … writs of mandamus … [to] persons holding office under the authority of the United States.” Thus the Act itself explicitly authorized the relief being sought by the plaintiffs.

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