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Marbury vs Madison

Marbury vs Madison

In any list of the most important US Supreme Court decisions, Marbury v Madison is invariably near the top. While the case seemed at first to be a minor quibble in the handover of power from an outgoing president to the incoming one, Marbury transformed the role of the Supreme Court from a weak, ineffectual third branch of government to a serious counterweight to the power of the Congress and the President.

The Controversy

According to the Constitution, every Supreme Court case must start with a precipitating event. Unlike the Congress or the President, the Supreme Court is passive and must wait for citizens to formulate a lawsuit and for that lawsuit to bubble up through the lower courts before the Supreme Court can rule on a case. Marbury is no different. Although the case made a tremendous impact, the Supreme Court was still simply ruling on the facts that were presented to them.

In Marbury, the Court was presented with the following facts. In 1800, John Adams was the sitting president, but he had just lost a presidential election to Thomas Jefferson. In the few remaining weeks he had in office, he was determined to cement his legacy before Jefferson could counteract it. On his way out, he appointed 60 new judges to the lower courts and other legal positions, wrote up documents telling the judges of their appointments, and entrusted them to a friend to deliver them.

The day he left office, a few of the appointment documents had not been delivered. Thomas Jefferson took office and immediately declared that anyone who Adams appointed that hadn't received their commission in time was no longer appointed. William Marbury, one of the appointees who hadn't received his commission in time, sued. He wanted the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, an order commanding the new president to turn over the documents so he could start his new job.

Although the Constitution didn't mention the writ of mandamus, Marbury pointed out that Congress had passed a law, the Judiciary Act of 1789, that gave the Court that power. Marbury's argument was simple: he had been duly appointed to a job, he had been wronged, and the Supreme Court ought to compel the President to right the wrong.

The Decision

The background of the case seems rather mundane, so how did Marbury v Madison become such a fundamentally important case? Through a bit of ingenuity on the part of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Marshall was a member of John Adams government, and so found himself in a very difficult situation. As often in politics, his loyalties were divided, and it seemed he would be forced to make a decision that would forever ruin his ties to one side or the other. And so he set out to find a third way out of the dilemma.

For Marshall, there were three key questions in the case, namely: did Marbury successfully obtain his commission? If so, was Marbury legally entitled to receive the commission? And finally, can the Supreme Court issue the writ of mandamus to give him the remedy he seeks?

In answering the first question, Marshall found that Marbury had been lawfully appointed to his new commission. According to the law, there was no need for the commission to be delivered for it to legally take effect. Moving on to the second question, Marshall also found that Marbury had a legal right to the commission.

What the Court would not do, however, was issue the writ. In answering the third question, Marshall found a third way out of the appointment dilemma. He declared that the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the Supreme Court the power to issue the writ Marbury was seeking, violated the Constitution. The powers of the Supreme Court were carefully laid out in Article III of the Constitution, he said, and any expansion of those powers was forbidden. So he would not issue the writ, because he had no power to.

The Impact

By declaring the Judiciary Act unconstitutional, Marshall was doing something revolutionary. The Supreme Court, for the first time in American history, was invalidating an act of Congress because it violated the Constitution. This process, called judicial review, is not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, but is perhaps the most important role of the Supreme Court. Marbury is so significant because it lays out for the first time this essential power.

In the ensuing two centuries, judicial review has played an enormous role in the history of the United States. The ruling transformed the court: in the early days of the republic, the Supreme Court was considered boring and ineffectual. Now, it had the power to invalidate laws passed by Congress! Since Marbury, the Court has been asked to strike down thousands of laws. Often, for example when the Court was asked to invalidate the ObamaCare laws, the Court declines and defers to Congress. Many times however, the Court will exercise its power to strike down laws, as it has done in issues ranging from taxation, to curtailing rights, to the power of the judiciary itself.

This power is not without controversy. After all, Congress is the most democratic branch of government. It expresses the will of the people, who vote every two years to elect lawmakers. It seems obvious that Congress is endowed with quite a lot of legitimacy to make laws as they see fit. If the people disagree with an act of Congress, they need only wait 24 months to throw them out. By contrast, the Supreme Court is not elected at all. They are appointed by the President, and hold their office for life. They are, it has been said, the least democratic branch. Who are they to overrule the will of the people expressed by Congress?

The Courts don't take this responsibility lightly. Much legal debate in America revolves around when and how the Courts ought to intervene, and when they should hold back. What do you think? When should the Courts be able to strike down a law, and what limits should there be? If Congress passes a law, what authority do the Courts have to strike it down?

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