Marbury v Madison, 1803
Widely recognized as one of the most significant in this history of the Supreme Court, this case arose from the political controversies swirling around the transition of power in 1801 from Federalist President John Adams to Republican President-elect Thomas Jefferson. The two factions were bitterly divided. Fearing the effects of the new Republican administration, Federalists pushed Adams to make last-minute appointments of judges and justices of the peace to secure these positions for those presumably more favorable to the Federalists.
Among those appointments was a commission naming William Marbury of Washington as a justice of the peace. The commissions were turned over to John Marshall, who was still acting as Secretary of State, but they were not delivered. When Marbury was not allowed to assume his new duties, he went to court to obtain an order, called a write of mandamus, directing the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the commission to him. Marbury, however, did not go to a lower court, but directly to the Supreme Court, pointing out that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 had authorized the Court to issue such writs.
Writing the opinion for the Court in this case, Chief Justice Marshall found that Mr. Marbury was entitled to his commission as justice of the peace. In addition, a writ of mandamus from the Court would allow him to enforce his right to receive it. Marshall then concluded, however, that the Judiciary Act of 1789 had unconstitutionally expanded the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction -- its authorization to hear cases that had not been heard by a lower court. In other words, Marshall interpreted the Judiciary Act to say that anyone who wanted a writ of mandamus could go straight to the Supreme Court. Under this interpretation, Marshall said, the Act violated the Constitution because the Constitution outlined the limited areas in which the Court could exercise original jurisdiction and issuing such a writ was not one of them. Thus, the Court held that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was null and void because no federal law or act could supersede the Constitution.
This opinion has been scrutinized over the years because the Court did not necessarily have to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional to resolve the case. In fact, it appears that all of the authors of the 1789 Act (including many delegates to the constitutional convention) had meant to say that in a case properly before the Supreme Court, the Court could issue a writ of mandamus. Marshall, however, used his alternative interpretation to assert the Court's authority to strike down laws that contravened the Constitution. Thus, he said, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." He therefore made clear that it was precisely the role of the Supreme Court to decide whether a federal law at issue in a case was in conflict with the Constitution and, if so, to declare it void. This power of the Court has been known ever since as "judicial review."
The Marbury decision also demonstrates Marshall's desire to avoid direct confrontations with the other branches of government, but to maintain a balance of power among them. In declaring that Congress could not expand the Court's original jurisdiction beyond that provided in the Constitution, Marshall was limiting the authority of the Court. Marshall avoided having to order the executive branch to deliver Marbury's commission, but established the power of the Court to exercise judicial review.