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Marbury v. Madison Case Analysis


Marbury v. Madison, was a landmark legal case in the United States in which, on February 24, 1803, the U.S. Supreme Court first declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, thus establishing the doctrine of judicial review. It is one of the first cases to establish the doctrine in modern democracy[1].The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, is considered one of the foundations of U.S. constitutional law.

Brief Factual Background

In the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams. However, before Jefferson officially became president on March 4, 1801, after the election, there was a period referred to as the “lame duck” period. During this time, John Adams and his political party, the Federalists, aimed to solidify their power and hinder their Democratic-Republican rivals. Adams and Congress passed a law called the Judiciary Act of 1801. This law created new courts, added more judges, and gave the president more power to choose judges. Adams used this law to appoint many new judges, hoping to make things difficult for Jefferson. Taking advantage of the situation, Adams wasted no time in selecting 16 additional circuit judges and 42 justices of the peace. Although these appointments received confirmation from the Senate, their commissions had to be officially handed over by the Secretary of State for them to take effect.

William Marbury, who had been designated as a Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, found himself adversely affected by these circumstances. Regrettably, the transmission of his official appointment documents was deliberately withheld. In response, Marbury sought relief from the Supreme Court, requesting a writ of mandamus to compel James Madison, the newly appointed Secretary of State, to deliver his appointment papers. Joined by three other individuals facing analogous circumstances, Marbury and his co-petitioners petitioned the court for the issuance of said legal writ, thereby seeking the enforced delivery of their respective appointment commissions.

The Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion on February 24, 1803 which was delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall.


  • Whether the applicant has a right to the commission that he demands?
  • If he has a right, whether the laws of USA afford him a remedy on violation of those rights?
  • If a remedy is available, whether it is a mandamus issuing from The Supreme Court?

The last question, the crucial one, dealt with the jurisdiction of the court, and in normal circumstances it would have been answered first, since a negative response would have obviated the need to decide the other issues. But that would have denied Marshall the opportunity to criticize Jefferson for what the chief justice saw as the president’s flouting of the law.

Legal Provisions Involved

  • Judiciary Act of 1789: Section 13 of Act vested the Supreme Court with the authority to “issue…writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law.”
  • Article II of the Constitution of the U.S.A: Section 2d of Article 2d of the US Constitution, which states “the president shall nominate and, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not otherwise provided for.
  • Article II d of the Constitution of the U.S.A: Section 3d of Article 2d of the US Constitution, which states that, “he (the President) shall commission all the officers of the United States.”
  • Article III of the Constitution of the U.S.A: This is the article from which the Supreme Court derives its authority. It states “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 offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.”
  • Act of Congress 1801: Section 11 of the Act which states “that there shall be appointed in and for each of the said counties, such number of discreet persons to be justices of the peace as the president of the United States shall, from time to time, think expedient, to continue in office for five years.” This was the provision that enabled the creation of the office of Justice of the Peace under which the commissions were issued by Adams in the last days of his presidency.

Judgement & Analysis

  1. ISSUE 1: Entitlement of the applicant for right to Commission

The Court held that the validity of a commission existed once a president signed it and transmitted it to the secretary of state to affix the seal. Presidential discretion ended there, for the political decision had been made, and the secretary of state had only a ministerial task to perform delivering the commission. In that the law bound him, like anyone else, to obey. The Court, after perusing the second article of the constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789, stated that since Mr. Marbury’s commission was signed by the president and sealed by the secretary of state, was appointed; and as the law creating the office gave the officer a right to hold for five years independent of the executive, the appointment was not revocable; but vested in the officer legal rights which are protected by the laws of his country.

  1. ISSUE 2: Remedy on violation of right to Commission

Having decided that Marbury had the right to the commission, the Court next turned to the question of remedy, and once again found in the plaintiff’s favour, holding that “having this legal title to the office, [Marbury] 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.”[3]

  1. ISSUE 3: Remedy of Mandamus

Delving into the significance of the protection of the civil liberties of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, the court stated that where the heads of departments are the political or confidential agents 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. However, 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 remedy.[4] Further quoting Lord Mansfield in The King v. Baker, the Court held that Marbury had a legal remedy in the present case:

there is a right to execute an office, perform a service, or exercise a franchise (more especially if it be in a matter of public concern or attended with profit), and a person is kept out of possession, or dispossessed of such right, and has no other specific legal remedy, this court ought to assist by mandamus, upon reasons of justice, as the writ expresses, and upon reasons of public policy, to preserve peace, order and good government.”[5]

Although the court could have held that the proper remedy was a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court as the law that had granted the court the power of mandamus in original (rather than appellate) jurisdiction. But since the Judiciary Act of 1789 was still in effect and hence instead declared that the court had no power to issue such a writ, because the relevant provision of the act was unconstitutional. Section 13 of the act was inconsistent with Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states in part that “the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction” in “all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party,” and that “in all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction.”

In thus surrendering the power derived from the 1789 statute and giving Jefferson a technical victory in the case, Marshall gained for the court a far-more-significant power, that of judicial review.

Concluding Remark: Impact

This verdict given by the Court has been widely hailed. In the face of attacks on the judiciary launched by Jefferson and his followers, Marshall needed to make a strong statement to maintain the status of the Supreme Court as the head of a co-equal branch of government. By asserting the power, which the court would not exercise again for more than half a century, Marshall claimed for the court a paramount position as interpreter of the Constitution.

Although Marbury v. Madison set an abiding precedent for the court’s power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, it did not end debate over the court’s purview. In fact, it is likely that the issue will never be fully resolved. But the fact remains that the court has claimed and exercised the power of judicial review through most of U.S. history, and as Judge Learned Hand noted more than a century later, the country is used to it by now. Moreover, the principle fits well with the government’s commitment to checks and balances. Few jurists can argue with Marshall’s statement of principle near the end of his opinion, “that a law repugnant to the constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”

The Doctrine of Judicial Review has since been borrowed and emulated by other Commonwealth and Civil Legal systems as a measure to enforce a mechanism of Checks and Balances. This case is cited as an authority in India in the famous cases like Vishak Bhattacharya v. State of West Bengal[6]. It has been interpreted differently by modern scholars and commentators, especially in the light of the principles of “Popular Constitutionalism” and “Legal Constitutionalism”[7]

A Plaque in the Supreme Court of the United States of America

[1] Melvin Urofsky, Marbury v Madison, ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, https://www.britannica.com/event/Marbury-v-Madison

[2] William Marbury v. James Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 139

[3] William Marbury v. James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States, 5 U.S. 137,163

[4] William Marbury v. James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States, 5 U.S. 137,168

[5] The King v. Baker et. al., 3 Burrows 1266

[6] Vishak Bhattacharya v. State of West Bengal, AIR 2015 Cal 187, Para 60

[7] Larry Kramer, Understanding Marbury v. Madison, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 148, No. 1, Page 14-26

Law Wire Team
Law Wire Teamhttps://lawwire.in/
Law Wire Team attempts to delve into pertinent (and sometimes not immediately pertinent) questions regarding socio-politics, Law and their interesting matrix.


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