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Marbury v. Madison was a case heard by the United States Supreme Court in November 1800. The facts of this case were convoluted. In the 1800 elections, incumbent John Adams was beaten by Thomas Jefferson. During the transition of power to the president-elect, Adams persuaded the federalist-dominated Congress to approve the Judiciary Act of 1801. This act gave him the authority to appoint new federal justices, whose commissions he signed after they were authorized by the Senate and affixed with the government's official seal. However, by the time the new president took office, the commissions had not been delivered, so he ordered that they be withheld. One of the appointed judges Madison petitioned the Supreme Court to force Marbury to deliver the documents.
In writing the decision of the Supreme Court, chief justice John Marshall pointed out that there were three main issues in this case. First was the issue of whether the petitioner had a right to the legal order he was seeking. There was also the question of whether the constitution of the United States allows the courts to grant the petitioner such a legal order. Finally, if the laws allowed, could the Supreme Court grant him such a legal order. Regarding the first question, the decision of the court was that Madison’s appointment had been made properly as required by law and, therefore, he had a right to the legal order. For the second question, Marshall ruled that the law had to afford Madison a remedy since he had a right to a commission. He added that the courts had a responsibility to safeguard the rights of individuals, even against the president.
The ruling by chief justice Marshall answers the issue of judicial review in dealing with the third question. The court’s verdict was that it could not give the writ because the law which had been cited in making the appointments was unconstitutional seeing that it had handled issues that can only be dealt with by the supreme court. The constitution only dealt with the jurisdictional matter of original jurisdiction, i.e., the power of the Supreme Court to be the first and only court to hear a case. Article III, section 2, of the constitution states that it only applies to cases “affecting ambassadors, other public ministers, and consul” It also affects cases “in which a state shall be party.” He argued that Congress had overstepped its mandate by extending the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court such as the case that was before the court. The chief justice stated that when decisions by the Congress are in contravention to the American constitution, the judiciary is obligated to uphold the constitution because it is above any individual or institution.
Following this ruling, Marbury was denied his commission, but the chief justice also affirmed the powers of the judiciary to review acts of Congress. The argument here is that any act of Congress that conflicts with the constitution is non-binding to the courts because the first responsibility of the judiciary is to uphold the constitution. Thus Marbury was denied the appointment because in the instance two conflicts, it is the duty of the court to decide which law applies. Through this assertion of judicial review, the judiciary proclaimed its place as an equal arm of the government, with the same powers as the Executive and Congress.
Rossum, Ralph A, and George Alan Tarr. American Constitutional Law. Boulder: Westview Press, 2016.
Stimson, Frederic Jesup. The Law Of The Federal And State Constitutions Of The United States. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2004.
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