Marbury v. Madison

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Marbury v. Madison[1] was a landmark case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1803. In its unanimous ruling that a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with Article III of the Constitution, the Court established its power of judicial review, which is the power to adjudicate the constitutionality of actions taken by the government's legislative and executive branches.

Facts of the case

William Marbury was one of several "midnight appointments" made by outgoing President John Adams at the very end of his term. The Senate approved the appointments, but a few of the commissions, including Marbury's, were not delivered prior to the transfer of presidential power from Adams to his successor, Thomas Jefferson. Upon taking office, Jefferson ordered his secretary of state, James Madison, to withhold the undelivered commissions and issued his own replacement appointments over the next couple of weeks. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court directly to issue a writ of mandamus compelling Madison to deliver his commission.

Legal questions and ruling

Marbury v. Madison raised three legal questions: First, was Marbury entitled to the appointment? Second, if he was entitled to the appointment, do the laws of the United States provide a remedy for its deprivation? Finally, if the laws of the United States do provide a remedy for Marbury, was the Supreme Court the appropriate venue from which to seek it?

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the Court. In response to the first question, he maintained that Marbury was indeed entitled to his appointment, which had been duly signed and sealed by President Adams and his secretary of state. Jefferson's order to Madison to withhold the commission was therefore a violation of Marbury's right. Marshall answered the second question in the affirmative, as well. Citing Sir William Blackstone's dictum in Commentaries on the Laws of England that "every right, when withheld, must have a remedy, and every injury its proper redress,"[2] he asserted that if it were to be shown that the laws of the United States could not provide such remedy, its government would no longer merit being characterized as one "of laws, and not of men."[3]

Constitutional implications

In defending the constitutional design of the judiciary in Federalist Paper #78, Alexander Hamilton had maintained that "the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power" within the federal government and the "least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution." Marbury v. Madison challenged that presumption.

Chief Justice Marshall also addressed the issue of constitutional effect and stated in his ruling that no constitutional clause is intended to be "without effect", and that arguments implying a redundancy of a constitutional meaning are not admissible unless necessitated.[4]


  1. 5 U.S. 137 (1803)
  2. quoted at 5 U.S. 137, 163
  3. Ibid.
  4. "It cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect; and therefore such construction is inadmissible, unless the words require it."