Marbury v. Madison

Judicial Crisis Averted

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in Stuart v. Laird, the case that had garnered so much attention in 1802, on the same day that it announced the decision in Marbury v. Madison.  President Jefferson was furious over what he perceived as a lecture from John Marshall about the power of the Supreme Court to issue writs of mandamus to an executive official in appropriate circumstances.  But Jefferson could not complain about the outcome in Marbury, because the court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, allowing Jefferson to fill the vacant justice-of-the-peace positions.  Moreover, by dismissing the case, the court acknowledged constitutional limitations on its own exercise of power, not just limitations on the other two branches.  

Six days after oral argument in Stuart v. Laird, the Supreme Court issued its decision in that case.  On the surface, it was another defeat for the Federalist Party.  In a three-paragraph opinion for a unanimous court, Justice William Paterson upheld the constitutionality of the Repeal Act of 1802 that had removed sixteen circuit court judges from office and required the transfer of Stuart v. Laird to another circuit.  He reasoned:

Congress have constitutional authority to establish, from time to time, such inferior tribunals as they may think proper; and to transfer a cause from one such tribunal to another.  In this last particular, there are no words in the constitution to prohibit or restrain the exercise of legislative power.

Paterson also made short shrift of the argument that the Constitution prohibited Congress from assigning the justices to sit as trial court judges on circuit under the Judiciary Act of 1802:

To this objection, which is of recent date, it is sufficient to observe, that practice, and acquiescence under it, for a period of several years, commencing with the organization of the judicial system, affords an irresistible answer, and has indeed fixed the construction. 

The question of the constitutionality of circuit riding, he concluded, “is at rest, and ought not now to be disturbed.”  

Emerging from the Constitutional Firestorm of 1800

Democratic-Republicans had won significant political victories from the Supreme Court in the span of a week.  A Supreme Court composed entirely of Federalist judges had upheld one statute that resulted in removal of sixteen Federalist judges.  It had upheld another statute that restored their hated circuit-riding duties.  It had denied a Federalist litigant his position as a justice of the peace and let President Jefferson make the appointment.  Did the Supreme Court merely capitulate to political pressure?  One view is that it did, for the following self-serving reasons related to the threat of impeachment.

In February 1803, President Jefferson had sent members of the House evidence that federal district court judge Thomas Pickering had gone insane, was a drunkard, and had issued improper judicial rulings.  The next month, the House impeached Pickering over the vocal objections of Federalist Party members who argued there was no constitutional basis to remove Pickering from office. (The Senate convicted Pickering the following January.)  House members also threatened to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase for his role in upholding the Sedition Act (more about this in Segment 6), and to impeach Chief Justice Marshall if he decided Marbury v. Madison in Marbury’s favor.  From this perspective, the Supreme Court under Marshall’s leadership caved to political pressure to save itself, or at least to save its chief justice.   

From another perspective, however, the Supreme Court had emerged from the constitutional firestorm sparked by the election of 1800 a more unified, independent institution.  In the midst of the country’s first constitutional crisis the court had given the appearance of removing itself from partisan politics by ruling against fellow Federalists.  It had spoken with one voice as a collegial court. And it had explained why it would exercise judicial review, a power that put it on at least equal footing with the other two branches of the national government. 

The High Water Mark of the Marshall Court

For the first decade of his tenure, 1801-1811, Marshall was surrounded by a majority of Federalist colleagues, even though Congress had increased the size of the court to seven in 1807, giving Jefferson another appointment.  Marshall was the author of almost 90 percent of the Supreme Court’s opinions during that decade.  

It is the second decade of the Marshall Court that is perhaps the most remarkable because by then President Jefferson had made three appointments and President Madison two more.  Party affiliation proved to be almost meaningless, however, . Te court’st unity would not hold, of course, as perspectives about the law and the meaning of the Constitution diverged, but it was particularly important during the period in which the Supreme Court was establishing its place in the constitutional order. 

One of President Madison’s appointees, Joseph Story, who joined the court in 1811, contributed significantly to the culture and helped to define the court as a separate, independent institution devoted to the law.   Story was a towering intellect and brilliant legal thinker.  To Madison’s chagrin, he became a staunch nationalist and ally of John Marshall.  Story’s 1833 treatise, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, remains a cornerstone of American jurisprudence. Marshall and Story did not always see eye to eye, but Story lent intellectual heft to those the positions with which he and Marshall did agree.