Marbury v. Madison | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Marbury v. Madison | Quotes


Some point of time must be taken when the power of the Executive over an officer, not removable at his will, must cease.

John Marshall

With this remark Marshall hints at the political conflict underlying the Marbury case. As the court recognized in Marbury, it is the president's prerogative to nominate and appoint many types of public officials. Once the appointment has been made, however, the president no longer has "power" over those officials unless he is specifically allowed to remove them. Thus, once Adams had appointed the Midnight Judges, neither he nor Jefferson could remove them simply by denying them a commission.


The value of a public office, not to be sold, is incapable of being ascertained.

John Marshall

Marshall's immediate point is that public offices are not personal property in the sense that money or a parcel of land might be considered "property." This distinction is directly relevant to the case because it determines what legal options are available for defending Marbury's claim to his office. In making the distinction, Marshall also underscores the significance of the case, since it deals not with furniture or real estate, but with something inherently priceless.


It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.

John Marshall

This sentence is the "meat" of the case from a constitutional-law perspective. With it Marshall declares that although Congress can make laws, the courts get to decide how those laws are applied. At the highest level, such decisions take the form of judicial review, where the Supreme Court determines whether a law or other action is constitutional. Though judicial review is considered fundamental to American law today, the principle was not articulated by the courts prior to Marbury v. Madison.


If courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of legislature, the Constitution [...] must govern the case to which they both apply.

John Marshall

Here Marshall goes into a little more detail concerning the workings of judicial review. When the Supreme Court reviews a case, it applies a principle known as constitutional supremacy. This means that in a conflict between the Constitution and any other law, the Constitution "wins." This idea, though basic to American law today, was not something to take for granted when the U.S. legal system was in its infancy. In some other countries (notably the United Kingdom), it is the legislature, and not a written constitution, that is held to be supreme.


The appointment is the sole act of the President; the acceptance is the sole act of the officer.

John Marshall

Here, Marshall describes a sort of "handoff" between the president and a presidentially appointed official. Before any appointment is made, the ball is in the president's court, so to speak. After the commission is delivered, the appointee—and not the president—gets to decide whether to accept the office. Just what happens in between is a question explored throughout Marbury v. Madison.


To withhold [Marbury's] commission, therefore, is an act [...] violative of a vested legal right.

John Marshall

Roughly the first third of the Marbury v. Madison opinion concerns whether Marbury has a legal right to his commission. This is a separate issue from whether the Supreme Court has the power to protect that right.

The term vested describes a right that is already secured and cannot be taken away. If Marbury's right to his commission is vested, it means his right is not in doubt, even though he does not physically possess the commission.


'It is a general and indisputable rule that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy [...] whenever that right is invaded.'

John Marshall

This language comes from William Blackstone (1723–80), an English jurist whose Commentaries (1765–69) became the standard textbook for legal studies in the early United States. Because the American legal system was still in its early stages, the Marshall Court often cited Blackstone as a guide to how U.S. law should be applied. Here, Marshall invokes Blackstone as an authority on the relationship between injuries (violations of rights) and remedies (legal actions correcting the violation).


The Government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men.

John Marshall

The phrase "a government of laws, not of men" comes from John Adams, during whose presidency Marshall had served as secretary of state. Adams had used the phrase to describe the goals of a republic. He had borrowed it from English political theorist James Harrington (1611–77). Harrington, in turn, described the political fashion of his time as "the empire of men, and not of laws," in which a few powerful individuals held sway. Those "men" could reshape the "laws" to suit their whims—a situation the drafters of the Constitution sought to prevent.


Is it to be contended that the heads of departments are not amenable to the laws of their country?

John Marshall

In arguing that a mandamus can legally be issued to the secretary of state, Marshall realizes he is treading on controversial territory. The judicial branch, he recognizes, might be accused of overstepping its bounds and telling officers of the executive branch how to do their job. At the same time, he asserts that high-ranking government officials do not automatically enjoy special legal protection simply because of their office. Instead, they are "amenable to" (i.e., bound by) the laws of the United States just like any other citizen.


The province of the Court is solely to decide on the rights of individuals, not to inquire how the Executive or Executive officers perform duties in which they have a discretion.

John Marshall

This statement also deals with the boundaries within which the judiciary can issue orders to other government officials. When a question concerns the violation of individual rights, Marshall argues, the courts are authorized to pursue a remedy. When, however, an executive officer (e.g., the president or a cabinet secretary) is simply exercising their constitutional powers, the courts cannot intervene. Protecting rights, not policing discretionary actions, becomes the standard for when judicial intervention is appropriate.


'The Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction.'

John Marshall

This text comes from Article 3, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. In Marbury v. Madison the court interprets this passage as placing a restriction on the cases the Supreme Court may hear. In doing so they reject the premise that the Supreme Court's jurisdiction can be expanded by subsequent laws. This interpretation is crucial to the court's decision, which upholds Marbury's rights but does not grant him any actual relief.


It cannot be presumed that any clause in the Constitution is intended to be without effect.

John Marshall

Some of the advocates in Marbury v. Madison argued for a different interpretation of the Constitution than the one Marshall and the other justices upheld. They maintained that granting appellate jurisdiction to the Supreme Court did not mean withholding original jurisdiction.

If this interpretation is correct, Marshall argues, then parts of the Constitution have no legal effect. Marshall maintains that such ineffectual language, called surplusage, can never be presumed to exist in the Constitution. This principle recurs in later Marshall Court decisions, which tend to favor constitutional interpretations that avoid surplusage.


To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained?

John Marshall

Extending the Supreme Court's jurisdiction via legislation is, Marshall warns, a dangerous course. If the limits in the Constitution are not observed, then they are not really limits at all. Throughout this portion of his opinion, Marshall asks the reader to consider what would result if constitutional limits could be crossed at will. The sitting legislature, he suggests, would have virtually unlimited power, including the ability to redefine such basic concepts as treason.


The Constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, [...] alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.

John Marshall

Here, Marshall restates the idea of constitutional supremacy by way of a dilemma. He favors—and in later decisions consistently upholds—the former position, which treats the Constitution as "a superior, paramount law." The notion of altering the Constitution "whenever the legislature shall please" is itself contrary to the Constitution, which includes (in Article 5) a specific process for introducing amendments.


Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the Constitution of the United States if that Constitution forms no rule for his government? if it is closed upon him and cannot be inspected by him?

John Marshall

As he nears the end of his opinion, Marshall grows more emphatic. If the Constitution is not to be used as a standard for judging other laws, he demands to know, what is the point of the judiciary? To swear to uphold the Constitution and then not be permitted to do so, he argues, is a form of extreme hypocrisy.

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