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Marbury v. Madison


February 24, 1803


  • In the final days of President John Adams' administration, he appointed several Federalist judges to maintain his party’s influence in the judiciary, an act known as the "Midnight Judges" appointments

  • William Marbury was appointed as a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia, but his commission was not delivered before Adams left office

  • When Thomas Jefferson became President, his Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to deliver the remaining commissions, including Marbury's

  • Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, which would compel Madison to deliver the commission


Did the Supreme Court possess the authority to issue a writ of mandamus to compel Madison to deliver Marbury's commission?


Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court. The ruling addressed several key points:

  • Right to the Commission: The Court found that Marbury had a right to his commission once it had been signed and sealed.

  • Legal Remedy: The Court affirmed that Marbury was entitled to a remedy for the violation of his right to the commission.

  • Judicial Authority: The Court examined whether the Supreme Court had the authority to issue the writ of mandamus. It found that the specific provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that Marbury had invoked was unconstitutional because it extended the Court's original jurisdiction beyond what was specified in Article III of the Constitution.


The Court held that:

  1. Marbury had a legal right to his commission and was entitled to a remedy.

  2. The Supreme Court, however, did not have the jurisdiction to issue the writ of mandamus in this case because the Judiciary Act of 1789 improperly extended the Court’s original jurisdiction.


  • Judicial Review: The case established the principle of judicial review, the power of the Supreme Court to declare laws and executive actions unconstitutional. This was the first time the Court struck down an act of Congress as unconstitutional, solidifying its role as a co-equal branch of government with the authority to interpret the Constitution.

  • Checks and Balances: The decision underscored the system of checks and balances among the branches of government, ensuring that no branch exceeds its constitutional powers.


Marbury v. Madison is a foundational case that established the principle of judicial review, empowering the Supreme Court to invalidate laws and actions that conflict with the Constitution and reinforcing the judiciary's role as an independent and equal branch of government.

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