Judicial Review and Separation of the Branches

On this day in 1803, the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803), is decided by the fledgling United States Supreme Court. This ruling forms the basis for the exercise of judicial review in the United States under Article III of the Constitution, and helped define the boundary between the constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches of the American form of government.

(Wonkishness Ahead) The case resulted from a petition to the Supreme Court by William Marbury, who had been appointed Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia by President John Adams but whose commission was not subsequently delivered. Marbury petitioned the SCOTUS to force the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the documents. The Court, with John Marshall as Chief Justice, found firstly that Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was both illegal and correctable.

(Wonkier Still) Nonetheless, the Court stopped short of ordering Madison (by writ of mandamus) to hand over Marbury’s commission, instead holding that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that enabled Marbury to bring his claim to the SCOTUS was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III established. The petition was therefore denied.

(Wonkish Conclusion) The Marbury decision expanded the power of the Supreme Court in general, by announcing that the 1789 law which gave the Court jurisdiction in this case was unconstitutional. Marbury thus lost his case, which the Court said he should have won, but, in explaining its inability to provide Marbury the remedy it said he deserved, the Court established the principle of judicial review, to wit the power to declare a law unconstitutional. Is that clear enough for you?

And here our wonkishness endeth.

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