Thursday, August 16, 2007

Analysis of the Constitutional Case Marbury v. Madison

Case Analysis of Marbury v. Madison

In Marbury v. Madison, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted its power to review acts of Congress and invalidate those that conflict with the Constitution.

In an article in the FindLaw, one of the leading legal research sites in the United States, it gave a background of the facts of the Marbury Case:

During the first two administrations, President George Washington and President John Adams appointed only Federalist Party members to administration and judiciary positions. When Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 election, President Adams, a Federalist, proceeded to rapidly fill the judiciary bench with members of his own party, who would serve for life during "good behavior." In response, Jeffersonian Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1800, which had created several new judgeships and circuit courts with Federalist judges, and threatened impeachment if the Supreme Court overturned the repeal statute. Although President Adams attempted to fill the vacancies prior to the end of his term, he had not delivered a number of commissions. (“Marbury v Madison (1803),” n.d.)

There was sufficient proof that the appointments, including the appointment of Marbury as justice of the peace, were signed by President Adams, with advice and consent of the Senate, and was affixed with the seal of the United States. However, Marbury’s commission was not delivered as required by John Marshall, Adams' Secretary of State that when Thomas Jefferson assumed office, James Madison, the new Secretary of State, withheld the commission of Marbury and other persons including Dennis Ramsay, Robert Townsend Hooe, and William Harper who then petitioned the Court through a writ of mandamus to force Madison to deliver the commissions. (Pohlmann, 2004, p.21)

Three issues of law were settled by the Court, of which the last issue served as the point of departure for the most important ratio desidendi of this case – the assertion of judicial supremacy and the determination of the hierarchy of the Constitution over all other laws.

The first issue was whether or not Marbury has a right to the commission he demands and the Court held in the affirmative that when a commission has been signed by the President the appointment is made; and that the commission is complete when the seal of the United States has been affixed to it by the Secretary of State. More so, by signing the commission of Mr. Marbury, the President of the United States appointed him a justice of peace for the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia and that the seal of the United States, affixed thereto by the Secretary of State, is conclusive testimony of the verity of the signature, and of the completion of the appointment, and that the appointment conferred on him a legal right to the office for the space of five years. (1 Cranch 137, 1802)

The second issue was whether or not the laws of the country afforded him a legal remedy if such a right exists and that right has been violated. Again the US Supreme Court ruled in the affirmative that having such legal title or right to the office, he has a consequent right to the commission and a refusal to deliver which is a plain violation of that right, for which the laws of his country afford him a remedy. Moreover, the US Supreme Court even said that:

It is a general and indisputable rule, that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy by suit, or action at law, whenever that right is invaded. xxx The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right. (1 Cranch 137,


Lastly, the final issue was whether or not asking the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus is the correct legal remedy to which the US Supreme Court held in the negative as the US Supreme Court declined to interfere with the decision of the executive department as they saw the execution of the writ to be encroaching on a political exercise that was not within the province of the judiciary to decide upon. The US Supreme Court left it to the discretion of the executive branch on whether or not to deliver the commission to Marbury. The Court even said that:

The province of the court is, solely, to decide on the rights of individuals, not to inquire how the executive, or executive officers, perform duties in which they have discretion. Questions in their nature political, or which are, by the constitution and laws, submitted to the executive, can never be made in this court. (1 Cranch 137, 1802)

However, while the US Supreme Court explained their judicial restraint to grant the writ of mandamus, it also embarked in finally defining the scope and limits of its power to review cases and controversies in the context of their mandate to interpret the law with emphasis on the primacy of the Constitution over all other statutes. The US Supreme Court declared it emphatically:

The constitution vests the whole judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as congress shall, from time to time, ordain and establish. This power is expressly extended to all cases arising under the laws of the United States; and, consequently, in some form, may be exercised over the present case; because the right claimed is given by a law of the United States. xxx It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other the courts must decide on the operation of each. xxx So if a law be in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty. But since the Constitution is superior to any act of the legislature, the Constitution must govern. (1 Cranch 137, 1802)

The FindLaw article was correct in concluding that while the case limited the court's power in one sense, it greatly enhanced it in another by ultimately establishing the court's power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, notwithstanding the recognition that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that the Supreme Court is the arbiter and final authority of the Constitution. (“Marbury v Madison (1803),” n.d.)

All of these, especially the ratio desidendi of the final issue, clearly changed the perspective of the legal institutions insofar as establishing the real role of the US Supreme Court in deciding cases. Since the Marbury case, this has been the standard by which cases, especially constitutional law cases, are judged by the US Supreme Court and whenever subsequent statutes, and event treaties are found violative of the Constitution, there is no other expected result in an actual case or controversy but to see such a statute declared unconstitutional. The Marbury decision recognized how supreme the US Supreme Court is, insofar as establishing it as the final decision-maker in all judicial processes, whether it for civil, criminal, and constitutional cases. For example, it can even defy a long-standing policy of the Bush Administration on extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists by granting civil liberties to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. More so, it even became a liberating force in allowing these prisoners constitutional rights to counsel, among others, despite Guantanamo being situated in a foreign territory, by abandoning an old constitutional doctrine on extra-territoriality. We also need to look back at the history of the United States to fully appreciate the importance of the Marbury case. Without such an assertion of judicial supremacy, and perhaps even judicial restraint, slavery would never have been abolished and whites and colored peoples would still have been segregated in American communities, as the Supreme Court, in its history, dared even to stand against policies of a sitting government despite nuances of utter conservatism all these years. For all of these, such a power of the US Supreme Court balances the excesses and misgivings of different branches of government and has even expanded much of the civil and political rights of the people. Without such recognition of the power of the US Supreme Court, American history would have been different and the US Supreme Court would have only been relegated in the dustbin of history.


  1. Pohlman, H. L. (2004) Constitutional Debate in Action: Governmental Powers. Rowman & Littlefield. _________________
  2. Newmyer, R. Kent (2001). John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Louisiana State University Press.
  3. 1 Cranch 137, 1802
  4. Irons, Peter (1999). A People's History of the Supreme Court. Penguin Books, pp 104-107.
  5. __________________. (2006) Marbury v. Madison (1803). Retrieved March 15, 2007. from

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