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Explanation & Background

by Melvin I. Urofsky

Just as George Washington helped shape the actual form that the executive branch would take, so the third chief justice, John Marshall, shaped the role that the courts would play.

Under the administrations of Washington and his successor, John Adams, only members of the ruling Federalist Party were appointed to the bench, and under the terms of the Constitution, they held office for life during "good behavior." (See Constitution, Article III.) Thus, when the opposing Republicans won the election of 1800, the Jeffersonians found that while they controlled the presidency and Congress, the Federalists still dominated the judiciary.* One of the first acts of the new administration was to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1800, which had created a number of new judgeships. Although President Adams had attempted to fill the vacancies prior to the end of his term, a number of commissions had not been delivered, and one of the appointees, William Marbury, sued Secretary of State James Madison to force him to deliver his commission as a justice of the peace.

The new chief justice, John Marshall, understood that if the Court awarded Marbury a writ of mandamus (an order to force Madison to deliver the commission) the Jefferson administration would ignore it, and thus significantly weaken the authority of the courts. On the other hand, if the Court denied the writ, it might well appear that the justices had acted out of fear. Either case would be a denial of the basic principle of the supremacy of the law.

Marshall's decision in this case has been hailed as a judicial tour de force. In essence, he declared that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury, but then held that the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the authority allotted the Court under Article III of the Constitution, and was therefore null and void (see Constitution, Article III). Thus he was able to chastise the Jeffersonians and yet not create a situation in which a court order would be flouted.

The critical importance of Marbury is the assumption of several powers by the Supreme Court. One was the authority to declare acts of Congress, and by implication acts of the president, unconstitutional if they exceeded the powers granted by the Constitution. But even more important, the Court became the arbiter of the Constitution, the final authority on what the document meant. As such, the Supreme Court became in fact as well as in theory an equal partner in government, and it has played that role ever since.

The Court would not declare another act of Congress unconstitutional until 1857, and it has used that power sparingly. But through its role as arbiter of the Constitution, it has, especially in the twentieth century, been the chief agency for the expansion of individual rights.

*JMU Editor: "Jeffersonians" and "Republicans" refer to the adherents of the same party, the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which at this web site will consistently be referred to as the Democratic-Republican party. The "Federalists" were the party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. For more on the party system, go to Political Parties.

For further reading: George L. Haskins and Herbert A. Johnson, Foundations of Power: John Marshall, 1801-1815 (1981); Donald O. Dewey, Marshall v. Jefferson: The Political Background of Marbury v. Madison (1970).

Note: this document is downloaded from the US Information Agency web site, but may no longer be available at that site. It is an excerpt from a longer piece, Basic Readings in US Democracy, by Melvin I. Urofsky, Professor of Constitutional History, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.


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