Key Facts—As President Adams was leaving the White House, he issued some final appointments that had been authorized by Congress. Some appointments were not delivered by the end of term, and President Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold them. Marbury, one of the appointees, filed suit with the Supreme Court to get a writ of mandamus to require Madison to give him his commission, a power that had been authorized by Congress with its Judiciary Act of 1789.
Procedural History—The Supreme Court was thought to have original jurisdiction in this matter, and thus it was the only court involved.
Issues—Does the applicant have a right to his commission? If so, do the laws provide a remedy? If so, is the remedy a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court?
Result—Marbury is deemed to have a right to his commission, and withholding it violates his rights. Thus, Madison is in the wrong. However, the Supreme Court cannot issue the writ of mandamus, because it does not properly have jurisdiction over the case.
Court Reasoning—The Court argues that a commission becomes complete when sealed by the Secretary of State, and further, the law requires that Madison issue the commission, because it is a responsibility assigned to him legally, not a political matter than he can choose to do or not do at his discretion. This is based on the argument that some actions by the executive are protected by executive discretion, but others are legal duties, the fulfillment of which can be examined by the courts. The Court adds, however, Congress’s actions, which they and Marbury interpreted as giving them the authority to hear this particular case, are unconstitutional, because they run contrary to the previously defined limits of Supreme Court responsibility described in the Constitution, which the Court chooses to interpret strictly. The Court further asserts that if a legislative act is counter to the Constitution, it is not law, because the Constitution cannot be permitted to change with the whim of each legislative majority. Further, it is the duty of the judiciary branch to examine these sorts of situations and resolve contradictions, effectively determining what the law is.
Holding—Part of the Judiciary Act is overturned, Congressional and executive authority are deemed subordinate to that of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court assumes the responsibility of reviewing whether or not the other branches’ actions are constitutional, a duty which is referred to as judicial review.
Please let me know what you thought of my efforts in the comments, and if you have any useful additions, please feel free to email me or otherwise share. If I think you make a strong point, I will update the brief. Otherwise, I’ll probably wait to update it until after the Monday class.