Why Marbury v. Madison Still Matters

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Jefferson used politics to weaken Federalist power in the Judiciary but the Marbury case (1803) strengthened the separation of powers and defined more strongly the principle of Judicial Review. Portrait by Rembrandt Peale.

The election of 1800 dramatically changed the fabric of the new United States. A bloodless change of leadership enabled Republican Thomas Jefferson to defeat the incumbent Federalist president, John Adams. Federalists also lost control of Congress. Only the third part of the new government, the Judiciary, represented Federalist ideology, in part due to the “midnight” judicial appointments made by Adams.

One of those appointments went to William Marbury. When the new secretary of state, James Madison, refused to deliver the commission, Marbury looked to the Supreme Court for a remedy, relying upon Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Thus was born the case Marbury v. Madison, which every history and political science student has come to equate with the principle of judicial review.

The Federal Judiciary

Independence Must Be Inviolate

The role of the Judiciary was already being debated in Congress at the time Chief Justice William Marshall delivered his opinion. According to constitutional scholar Alfred Kelly, it was, “…his most celebrated opinion, if not his most important one.” Marshall began with the question: did Marbury have a legal right to the commission? The commission had been signed and sealed as well as approved by the Senate. These actions made the commission legal, whether Madison delivered it or not.

The Marbury Case: Political Aspects

The Marbury case, however, had the ingredients of a significant political battle, pitting the legislative and executive branches against the Judiciary. In his farewell address, President George Washington had warned against “factions” or political parties. Marshall knew that if he directly attacked Jefferson or Congress, the High Court could be weakened: there was no guarantee Jefferson would comply with Marshall’s decision.

Click to Read Page Two: Did Marbury Have a Remedy?

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© Copyright 2013 Michael Streich, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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