Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Compelling Question

What would our lives and political system be like without a Supreme Court with the power of judicial review?

Facts of the Case

At the end of President John Adams’ term, his Secretary of State failed to deliver documents commissioning William Marbury as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia.  Once President Thomas Jefferson was sworn in, in order to keep members of the opposing political party from taking office, he told James Madison, his Secretary of State, to not deliver the documents to Marbury.  Marbury then sued James Madison asking the Supreme Court to issue a writ requiring him to deliver the documents necessary to officially make Marbury Justice of the Peace. The Marbury v. Madison decision resulted in establishment of the concept of judicial review.

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.
— Chief Justice John Marshall

Fun Facts

On February 10, 1803, Marbury's attorneys argued the case. Neither Madison nor an attorney representing him was in court. Madison had never even acknowledged the order to show cause.

Shortly after the argument, Justice Samuel Chase became quite ill. To accommodate him in the winter weather, the Supreme Court began to hear arguments where the justices all lodged, Stelle's Hotel. On February 24, 1803, the justices gathered for four hours, while Chief Justice read the landmark Marbury decision. The case that made the U.S. Supreme Court one of the most powerful courts in the world was announced in the living room of a three-story hotel!


Oyez - Marbury v. Madison

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National Archives Primary Source - Marbury v Madison ruling

For your Consideration

Imagine life without a Supreme Court. Think about how different U.S. Checks & Balances sheet would be it there was no judicial review.

Judicial Review - The power of a court to refuse to enforce a law or a government regulation that in the opinion of the judges conflicts with the Constitution.

The Supreme Court is the keeper of the constitutional conscience. The Supreme Court alone, not the legislative or the Executive branch, gets to interpret the Constitution. Woodrow Wilson said that the Supreme Court was a “Constitutional Convention always in session.”

John Marshall said that judges- not executives or legislators- get to interpret laws. “If two laws conflict with each other, the courts should interpret the Constitution.”

But the Constitution itself does not give the judicial branch the power of judicial review. Court power has evolved since the ratification of the Constitution. And some would argue that John Marshall created the power of judicial review out of thin air! Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Is the judiciary, congress or the executive entitled to interpret the constitutionality of laws and executive actions?
  2. Is the judicial review that stems from Marbury v Madison a good thing?
  3. If you were John Marshall how would you have ruled in Marbury v Madison?
  4. How would the U.S. political system be different without Marbury v Madison?

Creative Time

Do one of the following to share:

  1. Summarize Marbury v Madison in a 140 character tweet with any hashtags you think are appropriate.
  2. Find an emoji or group of emojis to represent Marbury v Madison.


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Civic Action

Because the Supreme Court is an un-elected body, some people think that judicial review is undemocratic. Others think that it is wise to have an independent Constitutional check on the legislature and executive branch. One solution to this dilemma would be to hold elections for Supreme Court Justices. Contact your member of the U.S. House of Representatives and share your opinion of this solution.