Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that established for the first time that federal courts had the power to overturn an act of Congress on the ground that it violated the U.S. Constitution.

John Adams Rushes to Fill Seat on Supreme Court

The odd chain of events that led to Marbury v. Madison began in January 1801, when President John Adams, who had been defeated in his reelection bid, had to fill the Chief Justice seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that was being vacated by the ailing Oliver Ellsworth. Adams initially asked New York Governor John Jay, who had served as the nation’s first Chief Justice, to take the job again, but Jay turned him down. Adams then nominated his Secretary of State and close advisor, John Marshall, to fill the spot. Though the 45-year-old Marshall, a Revolutionary War veteran, had been a lawyer and a member of Congress before serving in Adams’ administration, he had no experience as a judge. Nevertheless, just a week after his nomination, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed him for the top spot on the court.

Adams still had two months left in his term and needed help, so he asked Marshall to do both the Secretary of State and Chief Justice jobs at once. As Cliff Sloan and David McKean write in their book The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, that arrangement would present an impossible conflict of interest today. But in 1801, it might not have seemed such a big deal. Though the Constitution’s framers had intended the Supreme Court to head a judicial branch that shared power equally with the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government, it wasn’t clear now much power the top court actually had. In those days, the court didn’t even have its own building; instead, it heard cases in a basement room in the U.S. Capitol.

Adams, meanwhile, rushed to fill as many other judicial positions as possible before his political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, took office. On the day before Adams’ term ended, he nominated 42 men to serve as justices of the peace, a lowly position that resolved minor legal cases. After the Senate approved his choices the next day, Marshall was assigned to finalize the paperwork and deliver the commissions. It was a lot of work and he didn’t get to four of them, including one belonging to a Virginia politician named William Marbury.

Jefferson Withholds Commissions, Marbury Petitions Court

When Jefferson took over the White House, he was irked by Adams’ last-second attempt to pack the federal courts with political allies. He told his own Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold the four undelivered commissions. Marbury sued to get his job. As Georgetown University legal scholar Susan Low Bloch writes, Marbury could have gone to the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, where he might have had a better chance of winning, based on that court’s previous rulings. But instead he went directly to the Supreme Court and petitioned for a writ of mandamus, ordering Madison to give them their commissions.

On February 10, 1803, the Supreme Court convened to hear the case. The Jefferson Administration was represented by Attorney General Levi Lincoln Sr., while Marbury’s side was argued by his predecessor Charles Lee. The case hinged on three issues. First, did Marbury and the other appointees have a right to their commissions? Second, if they did have a right that had been violated, did federal law provide a remedy? Finally, was an order from the U.S. Supreme Court the right remedy to solve the problem?

Marshall, who presided over the case despite having played a role in the events, found himself in a difficult position. Marbury had a good case, but if the court found in his favor, it wasn’t clear whether Jefferson would obey its decision or simply ignore it, which would have left the Supreme Court seriously weakened at a time when it was still carving out its authority. But if the court ruled in favor of the Jefferson Administration, it would look as if it had given in to political pressure.

The Marbury v. Madison Decision

The solution to the problem was an ingenious one. The court’s decision, written by Marshall, found that Marbury’s and the other appointees’ rights had been violated by Jefferson when he blocked their commissions, which already had been confirmed and affixed with seals. Additionally, Marbury was entitled to sue and seek a legal remedy, and a federal judge could issue a writ ordering Jefferson to comply.

But on the third question, things got even more complicated. The Supreme Court’s ability to hear Marbury’s case directly was based upon a portion of the Judicial Act of 1789, which gave the court the power to issue writs directly to federal office holders, without a plaintiff having to go through a lower court. But as Marshall wrote, Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution already specified that the court had original jurisdiction in limited types of cases involving “ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party,” and could only act as an appeals court in all others. Congress’s enlargement of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, therefore, was unconstitutional.

“The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written,” Marshall wrote.

As a result, Marshall concluded, “the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”

Supreme Court's Authority Is Established

The decision in Marbury v. Madison was immediately recognized across the nation as momentous, to the point that many newspapers reprinted it in full, according to Sloan and McKean. Though the idea that the Supreme Court could overrule an act of Congress actually predated Marbury v. Madison—Alexander Hamilton argued that point in The Federalist Papers in 1788—the principle now was firmly established in law.

Just as important, the ruling established the power of the federal courts over other branches of government to interpret the nation’s laws. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marshall wrote. “Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.” Today, thanks to Marbury v. Madison, the federal courts’ authority is undisputed.


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