Marbury V. Madison

So, when I was a Thurgood Marshall School of Law as a first year I was not required to take “Constitutional Law” This means that I need to take it this semester, with mainly a bunch of 1L students. I’m not if there is a reason why TMSL does not make this a 1L class, but I am hoping that I will do well since I will have less stressful classes than the other 1L students. Here is my brief on the case:

Π    Marbury    V.    Madison     ∆
Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (U.S. 1803)

Significant FACTS with relevance to outcome of case:

  • Thomas Jefferson beat John Adams in the presidential election of 1800.
  • Jefferson was not to take office until March 4, 1801.
  • Before Adams took office, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created ten new district courts. These new courts requires new judges to be appointed, and the act gave the president the authority to appoint them.
  • Shortly before Jefferson was about to take office, Adams appointed numerous Federalist Judges to cause issues for the soon to be Democtratic-Republican controlled congress.
  • These appointments were called “midnight appointments”
  • William Marbury was one of President Adams’ “midnight appointments.”
  • All of the necessary paperwork and procedures were completed to secure his appointment as a justice of the peace for Washington, D.C., EXCEPT:
    • Secretary of State John Marshall – himself a midnight appointee to a somewhat more exhalted judicial position – failed to deliver his commission.
  • Upon assuming the presidency, Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State – James Madison – not to deliver the commission.
  • Under authority of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (The Judiciary Act of 1801 which created the additional courts modified this act), Marbury sued to ask the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus to force Madison to deliver the commission.


1.    Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
2.    If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?
3.    If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?

Key Plaintiff’s Argument:

Marbury argues that the Constitution was only intended to set a floor for original jurisdiction that Congress could add to.
Key Defendant’s Argument:

Argues that Congress does not have the power to modify the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction.

Lower Court’s Ruling:


William Marbury brought his case directly to the Supreme Court because the Court had original jurisdiction over the case.


Short Answers to Issues:
1.    Yes
2.    Yes
3.    No.

The court determined that Marbury had a right to the commission because it was signed by the President and sealed by the Secretary of State.

Since they found he had a right to the commission, they had to look at if they had a remedy. They found that the remedy that Marbury was seeking (a writ of mandamus) did exist. Because the denial of the commission was a violation of the law, a writ of mandamus could fix that.

The legal definition of a writ of mandamus is:

A writ of mandamus or simply mandamus, which means “we command” in Latin, is a document issued by a superior court (appellate court) to compel a lower court or a government officer to perform mandatory or purely ministerial duties correctly.

The main part of this case deals with the fact that Justice Marshall found that the Constitution and the Judiciary Act conflict. That being so, the constitution is deemed the superior authority and thus, that is what the court follows. However Justice Marshall describes this much more in depth.

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”  When a case comes to the Supreme Court, the Court must decide that case according to the law.  If “ordinary” (statutory) legislation conflicts with the limits imposed on government by the Constitution, the fundamental law must govern the ordinary.   If the legislature passed an act that the Constitution forbids – like a tax on interstate sales, an ex post facto law, or a treason conviction based on something other than two witnesses or a confession in court – the courts would have to strike it down.  Otherwise, the Constitution would not limit government.  Courts have this power because they decide cases under law; judges take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and this is part of that function.

Therefore, the court cannot give Marbury the write he seeks as it lacks the authority/jurisdiction to do so. The Constitution does grant the Supreme Court two categories of jurisdiction for the Supreme Court.

1.    Original
2.    Appellate

Under Article III of the Constitution Congress has the power to regulate the 2nd one. APPELLATE JURISDICTION. However, Article III does not vest Congress with that power over Original Jurisdiction. So, when the Judiciary Act of 1789 purported to give that power over Original Jurisdiction to the Court it could not do that, because Congress did not have that power to give. It was retained exclusively by the Constitution.


The rule was discharged.
Meaning the case was dismissed.


Although the particulars of this case are bizarre the purpose of this case is to provide a larger illustration. Basically that it is the court and not congress whose job it is to interpret the Constitution. If for some bizarre reason Congress managed to pass a law that was unconstitutional like making murder legal. Then congress would be able to show that it was unconstitutional and therefore strike it down. Since you cannot appeal a Supreme Court decision, the only way for Congress to get that fixed would be to amend the Constitution, as that is the only way to get around the Supreme Court’s ruling.


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