Marbury v. Madison

As it happened, the Supreme Court did not announce its decision in Stuart v. Laird until six days after it had decided a different case, Marbury v. Madison.  At the time, Marbury seemed insignificant compared to Stuart.  However, it grew out of the same political turmoil.

On March 2, 1801, outgoing President John Adams signed commissions for the justice of the peace positions created by the Organic Act for the District of Columbia.  He directed his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to deliver the commissions.  Recall that Marshall had been confirmed as Chief Justice just days earlier, but he continued to serve in both roles for a short time.  Marshall directed his brother, James Marshall, who himself had been confirmed to take a seat on the circuit court of the District of Columbia on March 3, to deliver the commissions.  James Marshall failed to deliver all the commissions before midnight on March 3, and he returned those he had not delivered to the Secretary of State’s office.  When Jefferson became President on March 4, 1801, he found the undelivered commissions.  Jefferson’s designated Secretary of State, James Madison, was not yet in Washington, D.C., so Marshall quickly named Attorney General Levi Lincoln to be acting Secretary of State.  He ordered Lincoln not to deliver the commissions.  Lincoln followed Jefferson’s command.  One of the commissions he did not deliver was for William Marbury.  

In December 1801, Marbury and three others whose commissions had not been delivered asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus commanding Secretary of State James Madison to deliver them.  Madison had taken office on May 2, 1801. Marbury claimed that the court had original jurisdiction over the case under Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.  The court ordered Madison to respond at its next term.  Then, in the spring of 1802, Congress suspended the Supreme Court’s term, meaning that the court would not meet again until 1803.  

The Court set Marbury’s case for trial under its original jurisdiction when it met on the first Monday in February 1803.  Marbury called several witnesses.  State Department clerks refused to testify, however, because they claimed they were bound not to disclose any facts relating to the business of the Secretary of State’s office, a part of the executive branch.  The Supreme Court ordered them to answer questions in writing about whether the commissions had been recorded or delivered.  They did so.  Attorney General Levi Lincoln similarly refused to testify but, when ordered, he also provided written answers to questions.  He said he believed that the commissions had not been sent out.  James Marshall testified that he had not been able to deliver all the commissions before midnight on March 3, 1801.

Secretary of State James Madison was not represented by counsel.  Obeying an order from President Jefferson, he refused to appear or put on a case.  The Supreme Court took the case under advisement having heard from only one side of the dispute.   The court handed down its decision on February 24, 1803.  Marshall wrote the opinion for a unanimous court. The structure of the opinion was deceptively simple, providing answers to three questions. 

The Opinion of the Court

On February 24, 1803, Marshall wrote the opinion for Marbury v. Madison (1803) for a unanimous Court. The structure of the opinion was deceptively simple, providing answers to three questions:

The first question was whether Marbury and the others were entitled to their commissions.  Marshall held that they were.  All the steps required for the commissions to be valid had been taken.  

The second question was whether, under the laws of the United States, the Secretary of State could be the subject of judicial process, including having to respond to a writ of mandamus.  Marshall again answered in the affirmative.  The executive branch is not immune from being required to answer for its actions in a court of law.

The third question was whether a writ of mandamus compelling the Secretary of State to deliver the commissions was the appropriate remedy.  Marshall held that it was.  Moreover, if the Supreme Court had been deciding Marbury’s cases under its appellate jurisdiction, reviewing a decision of the circuit court of the District of Columbia, the court would have issued the writ of mandamus.   However, Marbury was asking the court to issue the writ in its exercise of original jurisdiction.  That, said Marshall, the Supreme Court could not do.  Article III of the Constitution specifies only two areas of original jurisdiction.  Marbury’s case was not within one of those two areas.  Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 when it enlarged the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction beyond what the Constitution grants.  Therefore, the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to provide the relief Marbury and the others sought.  The case was dismissed.