Supreme Court of the United States: Marbury v. Madison


The case Marbury v. Madison originated in 1801 and was decided in 1803 by four judges. It was one of the most important cases in American law history since it introduced the power of judicial review. Judicial review nowadays represents the power of the federal judiciary to review and examine different government bodies, such as Congress and the president. At the time, it also helped demonstrate the Supreme Court and lower federal courts’ authority and competence.

John Adams was led by the desire to appoint as many Federalists as possible in positions of power before his resignation. Overall, he managed to appoint nearly 60 circuit judges and justices of the peace. One of those positions was the Justice of Peace in the District of Columbia, set to William Marbury, a wealthy businessman from Maryland. After taking the presidential post, Thomas Jefferson was irritated by the actions of his predecessor. So, he ordered his new Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold the commissions needed for Marbury and three other justices to assume their positions.

Marbury v. Madison History

Since the commissions have been withheld, Marbury petitioned for the commissions to be delivered in conjunction with the other three appointees. Instead of going to the local court in the Columbia District, Marbury resorted to the U.S. Supreme Court. They requested the writ of mandamus, which is a remedy issued to compel a lower court to fulfill its obligations. It is apparent that Marbury was aware of the newly created circuit court that had two out of three judges as Federalists (Leo, 2020). So, it begs the question of whether he would have won the case had he gone to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia and what compelled him to opt for the Supreme Court.

When considering the possibilities of Marbury winning in the Circuit Court, it is crucial to consider the Act of February 21, 1801, that gave this court power to issue remedy against an executive order. The Circuit Court used it in the case of Stokes v. Kendall in 1837 (Calabresi, 2019). While the answer to the question of whether Marbury’s results had been positive if he had gone to the Circuit Court is possibly yes, the second question requires deeper consideration. There is a possibility that he and his lawyer thought that they needed a higher judicial body for the decision to be legitimate. Another possible explanation might be that Marbury was hoping for John Marshall, the Supreme Court Chief Justice appointed by John Adams, to rule in his favor.

Marbury v. Madison Issues

The issues posed by this case were framed in the form of three questions by John Marshall, who presided over the case despite this direct involvement. Question one: did Marbury have the right to have this commission? By the time the Jefferson Administration decided to withhold the commissions, they had been sealed and confirmed; their delivery was the only hindrance (Nelson. 2018). Question two: was issuing a writ of mandamus a proper remedy for this violation? If this were the case, it would heavily imply that the Jefferson Administration has broken the law by refusing the delivery of commissions.

Question three: was the Supreme Court allowed to issue the legal decision necessary to provide such remedy? The Court was able to hear this case based on the Judicial Act of 1789 that allowed it to give writs to federal office authorities (Nelson, 2018). It eliminated the requirement for having the plaintiff appear in a lower court, which Marshall used to avoid the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. In order to find a solution for this question, Marshall had to inspect the Constitution more closely in order to make a decision that would be lawful and beneficial.

Marbury v. Madison Court Decision

On the third issue, however, it was not as easy as with the first two. After consideration, the Court held that the before-mentioned Judiciary Act of 1789 that allowed Marbury to bring his case to the Supreme Court was unconstitutional. The validity of this decision was supported by the fact that it extended the Court’s jurisdiction beyond the jurisdiction it had according to Article III, Section 2 (Nelson, 2018). Therefore, the Court could not issue a writ of mandamus since it had no power to alter the Constitution. This holding was the establishing moment for judicial review, the ability to claim a law unconstitutional.

The ruling on this case presented several difficulties for the Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall. Ultimately, it has been decided in Madison’s favor; however, certain technicalities are worth mentioning. On the first two issues, the court decided in favor of Marbury. It stated that Madison indeed violated the appointees’ right by refusing to deliver the commissions. It also affirmed that Marbury had the right to sue and request remedy for these actions (Nelson, 2018). A federal judge could even issue a writ that would order Madison and the Jefferson Administration to comply. This gives the case a specific flare of duality, where both sides are in the right and in the wrong.

The reasoning behind this decision was as follows: first of all, if the Court decided to take Marbury’s side, it was unclear whether Jefferson would concede. The president’s unwillingness to cooperate with the newly established court would undermine its power and influence right at the roots (Leo, 2020). This outcome would be unacceptable for Marshall as the Chief Justice. Second of all, the Court could not fully cave in under the Jefferson Administration. This move would undoubtedly create a sense that the judicial branch was mendable to political influence. The only satisfying outcome would be to take into consideration both sides of the case.


The decisions made on this case were unanimous: with four to zero, the ruling stated that Madison was in the right in this instance. No dissenting opinions were expressed in the process of decision-making. No jury was involved in the process of making the holding. Generally, the Supreme Court of the United States enables the defendant or the plaintiff to a trial of jury, which means that they have a right to it. On a very special occasion, the Court can impanel a jury. For example, if the case requires some specific knowledge for a juror to be able to understand the case details.


Calabresi, S. G. (2019). Originalism and James Bradley Thayer. Nw. UL Rev., 113. Web.

Leo, S. A. (2020). Refilling the reservoir: How the Supreme Court has responded to challenges to its legitimacy. Political Science Honors Projects. 84. Web.

Nelson, W. E. (2018). Marbury v. Madison: The origins and legacy of judicial review. University Press of Kansas.

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LawBirdie. 2023. "Supreme Court of the United States: Marbury v. Madison." July 5, 2023.

1. LawBirdie. "Supreme Court of the United States: Marbury v. Madison." July 5, 2023.


LawBirdie. "Supreme Court of the United States: Marbury v. Madison." July 5, 2023.