Supreme Court Stories: Marbury v. Madison
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Supreme Court Stories: Marbury v. Madison

It goes back to the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans beat the Federalists of John Adams. And it’s full of politics because Adams, the last time he was in office, appointed these judges. And when Jefferson came in, he decided he didn’t want those judges. Back then, the inauguration, the change of administration… it didn’t really happen until March, so you had this period where Congress was in session, but the president really hadn’t changed. In that two or three months, the Federalists and President Adams, who had just lost, they realized they’re about to become the minority party for the first time ever. And both the executive and the legislative branches were gonna be dominated by their opponents. So, John Adams and his Federalist colleagues are trying to do whatever they can to stay in power. So, one of the plans that they devise is to expand the number of judgeships in the federal judiciary. Adams’s thought in all this was, on the way out, I’m going to appoint a whole bunch of judges and they’re gonna carry on my legacy. They passed a law that is nicknamed the Midnight Judges Act. John Adams is literally signing judicial commissions, nominating people, getting them confirmed by the Senate, into the waning hours of his presidency, before Jefferson takes office. And what’s interesting about this is that John Marshall, who ultimately becomes chief justice of the Supreme Court as a part of this whole process, previously, he is secretary of state, and he’s the one that physically has to deliver the commission to all of these new judges. But they ran out of time. Whenever Thomas Jefferson comes into office, he realizes that there’s all these undelivered judicial commissions for Federalist judges. There’s a stack of commissions on the desk, and Jefferson says, we don’t want Federalists as judges. And he orders his secretary of state, James Madison, to not deliver them. It’s really a political decision. Jefferson resented the Federalists; he thought there were too many Federalists in the judiciary. So he wouldn’t deliver these appointments. One of these judges was Marbury. It just so happened that Marbury had a friend who was the former attorney general for the United States. And his friends said, well, there was a statute passed several years prior that allowed the Supreme Court the authority to issue something called a writ of mandamus. A writ of mandamus – it’s basically a mandate. So Congress said, if need be Supreme Court, you can mandate that something happen. So, Marbury says, I know – I’ll ask the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to give me the commission as a federal judge. Now, there’s a lot of irony in this because John Marshall, who was the Supreme Court Chief Justice, was also in charge of delivering the appointments. John Marshall, who had wanted to deliver the commission to Marbury in the first place, but just ran out of time. So, John Marshall gets this request He’s like, I really want Marbury to get this commission. He’s a Federalist. On the other hand, I have this new administration full of anti-Federalists; I don’t want to piss them off. And as evidence for that belief, the Congress of the United States actually suspends the Supreme Court for a full year. This was a signal to John Marshall and the other justices on the bench that if you decide this case in the wrong way against the Democratic-Republicans, against the Jefferson administration, there are going to be dire consequences. So, John Marshall is faced with a dilemma. If Marshall rules that Jefferson has to turn over the commissions, he’s going to ignore the court order. Imagine that for a second. A president of the United States’s secretary of state ignoring an order from the United States Supreme Court. What precedent would that set? It would make the Supreme Court an inferior branch of the federal government. And what’s remarkable about this case is the way John Marshall navigates this decision. In Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion, he essentially poses three different questions. First, he wants to know whether or not there’s some sort of legal harm suffered by William Marbury. He says, fundamentally, that what the president did was illegal. By refusing to deliver the commission, President Jefferson did not faithfully execute the law. Next, he wants to know whether there’s a remedy at law for those legal injuries. And Marshall says because Marbury didn’t receive that commission, he has a right to sue. And so here we are, now two-thirds of the way through the opinion, and it looks like Marbury’s about to win. Then we get to that third question: Can the Supreme Court do anything about it? And Marshall turns around, and basically does a 180-degree turn, and says, but we have a problem. He decides to go back to the Judiciary Act of 1789. And he finds that this writ of mandamus was an expansion of original jurisdiction. It expanded the power that the Court has under the Constitution. What would happen if we could add to the Court’s original jurisdiction outlined in the Constitution just by passing legislation? Well, that means you could amend the Constitution with any old act of legislation. Why not amend Article I, the powers of Congress? Why not amend Article II, the powers of the presidency? So, what does Marshall do? He says, you know what, I don’t think that that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 is Constitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall reasons that the Judiciary Act of 1789 essentially amends the Constitution. The Supreme Court doesn’t have the power to issue a mandate that something happen. Therefore, the part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, section 13, that adds to the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, must be null and void. It cannot stand because it directly conflicts with Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution. And as a result, he declared a law of Congress unconstitutional. And from then on, established the precedent for judicial review. Judicial review. Judicial review, which is the Court’s greatest power that only the Supreme Court can say what the Constitution is. This ability to examine laws, to compare them to the Constitution, and when there’s a discrepancy, to actually declare that law, or part of that law, null and void. It is a seminal case that defines the power of the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court today has the power to interpret the Constitution and say what the law is solely because of Marbury versus Madison.


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