While the U.S. Supreme Court wields im­mense power in determining the constitutionality of federal laws, its authority was still uncertain until 1803. Although most of the framers expected the Supreme Court to perform this essential role, the Court’s authority was not explicitly defined in the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison, speaking for a unanimous Court, established the power of ju­dicial review, making the Supreme Court an equal partner in govern­ment along with the Legislative and Executive branches. The Supreme Court now serves as the final authority on the Constitution.

Chief Justice John Marshall
Chief Justice John Marshall

The Marbury case began in 1801, during the last few weeks of President John Adams’s term as president, just before Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency.

Congress had recently approved the appointment of several new justices of the peace in and around the District of Columbia. President Adams made appointments to these positions, and the Senate confirmed each just one day before Jefferson took office. The secretary of state was to deliver the formal appointments prior to Jefferson taking office, however, many of the commissions were not delivered on time. One of those appointed, William Marbury, did not receive his commission and immediately filed suit against the new Secretary of State, James Madison, for failing to deliver it promptly.

Marbury went directly to the Supreme Court, seeking a writ of mandamus, a legal order demand­ing compliance with the law, to require Secretary Madison to de­liver the commission. Chief Justice John Marshall was aware that if the Court forced Madison to deliver the commission, Jefferson and his administration would most likely ignore it, and thus under­mine the authority of the Court. Marshall’s decision stated that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury, but the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the author­ity of the Court under Article III of the Constitution. The decision upheld the law as defined in the Constitution, limiting the Supreme Court’s power at the same time, and establishing the fundamental principle of judicial review.

Excerpts

…The question, whether an act, repugnant to the constitution, can become the law of the land, is a question deeply interesting to the United States;… That the people have an original right to establish, for their future government, such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness, is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected….

This original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here, or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments.

The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legis­lature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten,

the constitution is written.… The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it; or, that the legislature may alter the constitution by an ordinary act. Between these alternatives there is no middle ground….

Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently, the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void.

This theory is essentially attached to a written constitution, and is, consequently, to be considered, by this court, as one of the fundamental principles of our society….