Marbury v. Madison (1803)

This might be the most important Supreme Court case in the history of the Supreme Court and the U.S. It also might be the most confusing to understand why this case changed the power of the court in such a huge way. If you understand nothing else about the facts of the case or the decision, you should understand that this case set a precedent that gave the court something called judicial review, which means that the court gets to determine when laws are unconstitutional/constitutional, and those decisions are final.


writ mandamus


original v appellate jurisdiction

Facts of the Case

President Madison & President (elect at the time) Jefferson

John Marbury

Constitutional Principle in Question

jurisdiction clause of Article III

Judiciary Act of 1789

Decision and Why it Matters

Article 13 of Judiciary Act & U.S. Constitution Article III

  • Does the court have the authority to issue the writ (order)?
    • Under the Judiciary Act? yes.
    • According to Article III of the Constitution? No.
  • Set the precedent of judicial review

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Case Document from Reader
Case Background

Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which provides the framework for the judicial branch of government, is relatively brief and broad. It gives the Supreme Court the authority to hear two types of cases: original cases and appeals. “Original jurisdiction” cases start at the Supreme Court—it is the first court to hear the case. “Appellate jurisdiction” cases are first argued and decided by lower courts and then appealed to the Supreme Court, which can review the decision and affirm or reverse it.

In order to build the court system and clarify the role of the courts, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789. This law authorized the Supreme Court to “issue writs of mandamus … to persons holding office under the authority of the United States.” A writ of mandamus is a command by a superior court to a public official or lower court to perform a special duty. These are common in court systems.

In 1801, at the end of President John Adams’ time in office, he appointed many judges from his own political party before the opposing party took office. It was the responsibility of the secretary of state, John Marshall, to finish the paperwork and give it to each of the newly appointed judges—this was called “delivering the commissions.” Although Marshall signed and sealed all of the commissions, he failed to deliver 17 of them to the respective appointees. Marshall assumed that his successor would finish the job. However, when Thomas Jefferson became president, he told his new secretary of state, James Madison, not to deliver some of the commissions because he did not want members of the opposing political party to assume these judicial positions. Those individuals could not take office until they actually had their commissions in hand.

Facts of the Case & Constitutional Issues


William Marbury, who had been appointed a justice of the peace of the District of Columbia, was one of the appointees who did not receive his commission. Marbury sued James Madison and asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring Madison to deliver the commission.

The politics involved in this dispute were complicated. The new chief justice of the United States who was being asked to decide this case was John Marshall, the Federalist secretary of state who had failed to deliver the commission. President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison were Democratic- Republicans who were attempting to prevent the Federalist appointees from taking office. If Chief Justice Marshall and the Supreme Court ordered Madison to deliver the

commission, it was likely that he and Jefferson would refuse to do so, which would make the Court look weak. However, if they did not require the commission delivered, it could look like they were backing down out of fear. Chief Justice Marshall instead framed the case as a question about whether the Supreme Court even had the power to order the writ of mandamus.


Does Marbury have a right to his commission, and can he sue the federal government for it? Does the Supreme Court have the authority to order the delivery of the commission?

Constitutional Provisions and Federal Law

Article III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution

“In all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction. In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.”

The Judiciary Act of 1789

This Act authorized the Supreme Court to “issue writs of mandamus … to persons holding office under the authority of the United States.”



There was no oral argument at the appellate stage of this case. Below are arguments that can be made for the parties in the case.

Arguments for Marbury (petitioner)

– Marbury’s commission was valid, whether it was physically delivered or not before the end of President Adams’ term, because the president had ordered it.

– The Judiciary Act of 1789 clearly gives the Supreme Court the power to order the commission be delivered.

– Secretary of State Madison, as an official of the executive branch, was required to obey President Adams’ official act. Therefore, the Court should exercise its authority under the Judiciary Act to issue a writ of mandamus against Madison.

– Article III states that Congress can make exceptions to which cases have original jurisdiction in the Courts. The case falls under original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

AP Gov Reader no sketchnotes

Arguments for Madison (respondent)

– The appointment of Marbury to his position was invalid because his commission was not delivered before the expiration of Adams’ term as president.

– The appointment of commissions raised a political issue, not a judicial one. Therefore, the Supreme Court should not be deciding this case.

– The case falls under the appellate, not original, jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. It should be tried in the lower courts first.

Decision & Impact


The decision in Marbury v. Madison ended up being much more significant than the resolution of the dispute between Marbury and the new administration. The Supreme Court, in this decision, established a key power of the Supreme Court that continues to shape the institution today.

The Court unanimously decided not to require Madison to deliver the commission to Marbury. In the opinion, written by Chief Justice Marshall, the Court ruled that Marbury was entitled to his commission but that according to the Constitution, the Court did not have the authority to require Madison to deliver the commission to Marbury in this case. They said that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution because it gave the Supreme Court more authority than it was given in Article III. The Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court to “issue writs of mandamus … to persons holding office under the authority of the United States” as a matter of its original jurisdiction. However, Article III, section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, as the Court read it, authorizes the Supreme Court to exercise original jurisdiction only in cases involving “ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those [cases] in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction.” The dispute between Marbury and Madison did not involve ambassadors, public ministers, consuls, or states. Therefore, according to the Constitution, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to exercise its original jurisdiction in this case. Thus, the Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Constitution were in conflict with each other.

Declaring the Constitution “superior, paramount law,” the Supreme Court ruled that when ordinary laws conflict with the Constitution, they must be struck down. Furthermore, the Court said, it is the job of judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court, to interpret laws and determine when they conflict with the Constitution. According to the Court, the Constitution gives the judicial branch the power to strike down laws passed by Congress (the legislative branch) and actions of the president and their executive branch officials and departments. This is the principle of judicial review. The opinion said that it is “emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”


Marbury v. Madison is considered a landmark case because it helped to establish judicial review. The ruling said that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and established the Supreme Court as the final authority for interpreting it. Therefore, when courts rule that a law or action and the Constitution are in conflict, the law or action can be declared unconstitutional and struck down. This decision elevated the judicial branch to be an equal partner with the executive and legislative branches. The decision in Marbury v. Madison greatly expanded the Supreme Court’s powers.

Case Summary & Analysis

Marbury v. Madison is one of the most important Supreme Court cases in U.S. history, laying the foundation for the exercise of judicial review in the United States under Article III of the Constitution. This landmark case, decided in 1803, established the principle that the federal courts have the power to void acts of Congress that they find to be in conflict with the Constitution.

The case originated from the final days of President John Adams’ administration. In an effort to secure Federalist control of the judiciary before Thomas Jefferson took office, Adams made a series of last-minute judicial appointments, including William Marbury as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. However, several of these commissions, including Marbury’s, were not delivered before Jefferson’s inauguration.

Once in office, Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the commissions. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, an order to compel Madison to deliver the commission.

The Supreme Court’s Decision:

Chief Justice John Marshall, who ironically had been the Secretary of State responsible for the undelivered commissions, delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court. The decision addressed three key questions:

  1. Did Marbury have a right to the commission?
    The Court found that Marbury had indeed been legally appointed and therefore had a right to the commission.
  2. If he had a right, and that right was violated, did the law provide a remedy?
    The Court affirmed that when a right is violated, the law typically provides a remedy.
  3. Could the Supreme Court legally issue a writ of mandamus in this case?
    Here, the Court concluded that while Marbury was entitled to a remedy, the specific request for a writ of mandamus was not appropriate. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which Marbury’s claim relied on, extended the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond what the Constitution permitted. Therefore, the Act was unconstitutional, and the Court could not issue the writ.

Marbury v. Madison’s significance cannot be overstated. By declaring an act of Congress unconstitutional, Chief Justice Marshall established the principle of judicial review, which empowers the federal courts to review laws and executive actions to determine whether they are in compliance with the Constitution.

This case significantly enhanced the power and independence of the judiciary, establishing it as a co-equal branch of government alongside the executive and legislative branches. It firmly positioned the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of constitutional interpretation, a role that has been fundamental to its operations ever since.

Marbury v. Madison has had a profound impact on the development of the American legal and political system. It established a system of checks and balances that allows for the judiciary to play a crucial role in ensuring that neither the executive nor the legislative branches exceed their constitutional authorities. This case is a cornerstone of American constitutional law and has been cited in countless significant Supreme Court decisions throughout history.

In essence, Marbury v. Madison underscored the rule of law in the United States, ensuring that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and that all branches of government are subject to it. This principle has been vital in shaping the American democratic system, protecting individual rights, and maintaining the balance of power among the branches of government.