Marbury v. Madison | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Marbury v. Madison | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Background

In March 1801, as his presidency entered its final hours, John Adams appointed dozens of judges under the recently created Judiciary Act of 1801. The appointees—sometimes known as the "Midnight Judges" because of the hasty, last-minute fashion in which they were appointed—were Federalists, members of Adams's political party. As such they shared Adams's belief that a strong federal government was essential for the long-term unity and prosperity of the United States.

Mere hours after Adams finished signing the commissions appointing the Midnight Judges to their offices, Adams was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson, his onetime friend and political opponent. A founding member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Jefferson championed states' rights and opposed the centralization of government power by the Federalists. Unsurprisingly, he was less than enthusiastic about the many Federalist judges whom Adams had appointed at the last minute. Secretary of State James Madison was the official whom the Constitution designated as responsible for the commissions of the new judges. Madison, however, refused to deliver the commissions and thus left the judges in a bind. Without written proof of their right to hold office, they would find it difficult if not impossible to fulfill their duties as judges. Legally, they might be considered judges, but practically, the commission was a necessary symbol of that authority.

Several Adams appointees, including William Marbury, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver their commissions. The court convened under Chief Justice John Marshall, who himself had been appointed to his post by Adams in 1801. They found that Marbury's rights had indeed been violated and that he was entitled to a legal remedy. They even went so far as to specify what kind of remedy would be appropriate: a writ formally ordering Madison to hand over the commissions. Remarkably, however, the court then declined to provide this remedy, arguing that it was not within their legal power to do so. Marshall wrote the main opinion for the case. He explained that the law authorizing the court to issue such writs (Judiciary Act of 1789, Section 13) was unconstitutional. When the Constitution and any other law came into conflict, he asserted, the Constitution must prevail.

The short-term effects of Marbury v. Madison were minimal. Marbury never received his commission because he had based his petition to the court on a law that proved unconstitutional—and was therefore void. In early 1802 the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed by Jefferson's supporters in Congress. In 1802 a new Judiciary Act was passed, creating a distribution of judiciary power more favorable to Jefferson and his allies.

Marbury v. Madison, however, is remembered not for its short-term outcome, but for its long-term impact on the American legal system. In declaring the unconstitutionality of a federal law, Marshall and his fellow justices established the principle of judicial review. This is the rule that executive and legislative decisions can be reviewed by the court. If, upon such review, those actions are found unconstitutional, then the actions are void. Thus, in denying the court the power granted by the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Marshall Court established a more legally sound role for the Supreme Court, which has, in turn, allowed the court to act more effectively as a branch of government.

Syllabus

The report of Marbury v. Madison begins with a syllabus: a summary of the facts of the case and the court's findings. The court determines that officials of the Department of State, including the secretary of state, may be legally required to give testimony of nonconfidential "transactions" within their department. The term transaction includes more than the exchange of money. It includes such activities as the commissioning of federal officials, whose records the State Department is responsible for overseeing.

The court also finds that as soon as the president has signed the commission of a federal official, that official is to be considered as commissioned. If the commission must be delivered ("the act of livery") before it is considered valid, then delivering it to the secretary of state is sufficient for that purpose. At that time, the court decrees, such commissions are legally regarded as a matter of official record.

The court's rationale for this finding is also given. When the heads of federal departments are acting under the president's lawful orders, their acts are "only politically examinable." In other words they cannot be sued for exercising their discretion where the law allows them to. When department heads are legally required to do something—such as record and deliver the commissions of federal officials—they can be sued for failing to comply. The "injured party," the person whose rights are violated when the secretary of state's duties are neglected, has the right to seek a legal remedy.

Next, these principles are applied to the specifics of the case. Marbury had been appointed a justice of the peace, and his appointment went into effect as soon as the president signed Marbury's commission. Since Marbury is legally entitled to the office for the length of his appointment, he is also legally entitled to the commission—the document authorizing him to hold the office. There are, the syllabus points out, different legal means by which Marbury might obtain his commission if it is being unfairly withheld. One is a writ of mandamus, sometimes simply called a mandamus, which is a direct order from the court to a public official. In this case such an order would instruct the secretary of state to hand over the commission. Another remedy is an action of detinue, a more limited legal judgment ordering someone to hand over property that does not belong to them. The court determines that a mandamus, not an action of detinue, would be appropriate here. A mandamus is proper because "the value of a public office, not to be sold, is incapable of being ascertained." An action of detinue might make it seem—incorrectly—that a piece of paper is what's at stake, rather than Marbury's appointment to public office.

The discussion now turns to whether the U.S. Supreme Court is authorized to issue a mandamus in this case. In general the Constitution gives courts two kinds of jurisdiction: appellate and original. The court has wide-ranging appellate jurisdiction; that is, it can hear appeals that originate in many different lower courts. But the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court—the range of cases it gets to hear that are not appeals—is much more limited. Marbury has brought his suit directly before the Supreme Court, which means it can only render a decision if it is deemed to have original jurisdiction. The basis for giving the Supreme Court such jurisdiction is the Judiciary Act of 1789, which seems to widen the court's jurisdiction beyond that specified in the Constitution. The court determines that this part of the Judiciary Act is unconstitutional and therefore declines to issue a mandamus in Marbury's favor. With the legal and factual background given and the court's opinion summarized, the syllabus concludes by describing how the case proceeded, as already outlined earlier.

Does Marbury Have a Right to His Commission?

The full opinion for Marbury v. Madison was written by Chief Justice John Marshall. He begins his exploration of the issues at stake by raising three basic questions:

  • "Has [Marbury] a right to the commission he demands?"
  • "If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?"
  • "If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?"

To the first question, Marshall answers "yes." He points to an 1801 law that allows for the appointment of justices of the peace, the office to which Marbury was appointed. The law clearly states their term (five years) and the person who is to appoint them (the president). John Adams, who was president when the law went into effect, duly signed a commission appointing Marbury as a justice of the peace. The commission was sealed by the secretary of state.

Were these actions sufficient, Marshall asks, for Marbury to be considered "appointed" to the office? If so, then Marbury has the right to hold the office for five years and is legally entitled to a commission proving his appointment. Turning to the parts of the Constitution that deal with the appointment of public officials, Marshall identifies "three distinct operations" in the process of appointment:

  • Nomination—the president is entirely free to nominate or not nominate particular candidates for an appointed office.
  • Appointment—once the president decides to appoint someone, he must obtain the advice and consent of the Senate. (Today, this "advice and consent" takes the form of a confirmation vote on the nominee.)
  • Commission—once the appointment has been made, the granting of a commission—as evidence of the appointment—is legally required.

The point, for Marshall, is that appointing and commissioning an officer are two separate things. Even if the president can appoint justices of the peace at will, this does not mean he (or his cabinet members) can deny commissions to officers already appointed. Sometimes, Marshall points out, the president may even be legally required to commission officers who were not presidentially appointed at all. Though this has not happened yet as of 1803, the distinction remains.

By distinguishing between appointment and commissioning, Marshall is able to argue that Marbury was appointed, legally speaking, as soon as the president signed the commission. Everything else—sealing the commission, recording it, and delivering it to the appointee—is legally required follow-up to the act of appointment. Thus, as soon as he has signed the commission, the president has relinquished the power to "undo" the appointment. If the officer is removable at will, the president can replace the officer immediately, thus making the appointment a very short one. If the officer is not removable at will, the president has no way of revoking the appointment.

Marshall briefly considers some alternative interpretations of the law, but he finds all of them unconvincing. Suppose, he says, that the commission is legally taken to be "not merely evidence of an appointment, but [...] itself the actual appointment." Even if this were so, the delivery of the commission could not be regarded as necessary for the appointment to be valid. Providing the appointee with a copy of the commission is "a practice directed by convenience, but not by law." Just because a commission gets lost in the mail does not mean that its intended recipient loses his appointment. Moreover, Marshall points out, a copy of the commission is always made and retained by the Office of the Secretary of State. Since such a copy is deemed to be legally valid, the appointment itself must be valid by the time such a copy is made or ordered to be made.

This branch of the argument closes with a look at some other legal details that support the idea of a distinction between appointments and commissions. "A commission," Marshall notes, "bears [a] date, and the salary of the officer commences from [the date of] his appointment, not from the transmission or acceptance of his commission." Once an appointment is made, he concludes, the appointee—not the president or other federal officials—has the prerogative of accepting or rejecting it. Thus, Marbury has a legal right to his commission as official evidence of his lawful appointment. Withholding his commission is a violation of that right.

Is There a Legal Remedy for Marbury?

Marshall now reflects on what sort of remedy the law provides for a case like Marbury's. The ability to seek legal restitution when one's rights are violated is, Marshall says, "the very essence of civil liberty." In support of this assertion, Marshall cites the opinion of English legal scholar William Blackstone (1723–80). Blackstone says: "every right, when withheld, must have a remedy, and every injury its proper redress." If this is true in Great Britain, a monarchy, it is even more essential to the United States, which claims to have "a government of laws, and not of men."

Nonetheless, Marshall stops to consider whether Marbury's case might be a damnum absque injuria—a "loss without injury." In Marbury's case this would mean the loss of the commission may be damaging to him, but nobody can be held legally responsible for that loss. Marshall rejects this possibility for two reasons. First, he argues that the importance of government offices such as Marbury's entitles them to legal protection. Second, he says that delivering or withholding the commission is not something the federal government can choose to do but something it must do.

Marshall recognizes that he could be construed as taking away rights from the federal government. He proposes a rule for when government officials can be sued for performing their duties. When the president and his officers are acting within their constitutionally prescribed powers, they have the legal discretion to decide how and when to exercise those powers. Actions taken within that discretion "can never be examinable by the Courts" because they involve the nation as a whole, not individual rights. When, however, government officials are specifically required by law to perform certain duties, they can be taken to court for not doing so. The delivering of Marbury's commission is, Marshall finds, an example of the latter case: a specifically prescribed legal duty that must be carried out.

Can the Supreme Court Issue a Mandamus?

At this point, Marshall has established that Marbury was legally appointed to his position and had a right to his commission. This right was violated by the State Department's refusal to deliver the commission. Marshall now inquires as to whether the Supreme Court has the power to order the secretary of state to deliver the commission via a writ of mandamus. As a starting point, he cites Blackstone's definition of a mandamus and reports on the use of the mandamus in the British legal system. Marshall quotes the British jurist Lord Mansfield (1705–93). Mansfield says a mandamus "ought to be used upon all occasions where the law has established no specific remedy, and where in justice and good government there ought to be one."

If a mandamus is to be issued, Marshall says, it must go to one of the officers of the Department of State. He acknowledges that this may look like an attempt by the judiciary to "intermeddle" with the executive branch of government. This, Marshall maintains, is not the case. The court's job is to determine questions of individual rights, and Marbury's rights have indeed been violated. If this is granted, it doesn't matter whether the person who violated Marbury's rights is also a public officeholder. Marshall also touches on the question, discussed in the syllabus, of whether a mandamus is the most appropriate legal instrument for addressing Marbury's claim. He notes that mandamuses have been sought in previous cases with many similarities to Marbury v. Madison. Other forms of legal relief, such as an action of detinue, are not judged appropriate.

The final question is whether the Supreme Court is empowered to issue a mandamus in this case. In response to this question, Marshall examines the law authorizing the Supreme Court to issue mandamuses: the Judiciary Act of 1789. He finds the law unconstitutional because it extends the Supreme Court's power beyond the limits set down in the Constitution. The relevant constitutional passage is Article 3, Section 2. This passage declares that the Supreme Court shall have "original jurisdiction" in cases involving diplomats or in which "one of the U.S. states is a party." In other cases the same section grants the Supreme Court "appellate jurisdiction," meaning the right to hear cases on appeal. Marshall also anticipates an objection to the phrasing of this passage. He says that appellate jurisdiction in this context means "appellate and not original jurisdiction."

The Judiciary Act, he argues, creates new original jurisdiction for the Supreme Court and violates the Constitution on those grounds. Since the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, the relevant portion of the Judiciary Act is declared void. Marshall pauses to ask the reader to consider what would be the result if the Constitution did not override any contrary law. Were that the case, he says, "written constitutions" would be "absurd attempts" to place limits on an all-powerful legislature. "A law repugnant to the Constitution is void," Marshall concludes, and "courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument." Because the unconstitutional part of the Judiciary Act is Marbury's basis for suing Madison, the court declines to issue a mandamus in Marbury's favor.

Aftermath

The landmark Marbury v. Madison case was important because it broadened the role of the U.S. Supreme Court beyond the powers explicitly expressed in the Constitution. After this case, the court was able to rule on the constitutionality of laws and executive actions through the principle of judicial review.

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