Issue 1: Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)


This is the first issue of “The Supreme Court is Usually Badass”, where I discuss a Supreme Court case and my opinion on its effects throughout U.S. History. I would also enjoy others to participate and discuss the decisions of the case, if one feels so inclined.

First up is Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803) (!


Thomas Jefferson defeats John Adams to become the 3rd President of the United States. During the lame duck period between presidencies, Congress passes the Judiciary Act of 1801 (, which effectively separated the Supreme Court from the circuit and district courts (and gives to Supreme Court additional powers). The passage of the Act created a multitude of empty seats in the circuit and district courts. Being the devout Federalist that he was, President John Adams promptly filled 16 circuit seats and 42 justice of the peace seats with Federalists (known as the Midnight Judges). This was in 1801, when the commissions for the 58 seats could not be sent by email; as such, not all of the commissions were sent before the end of Adams’ presidency. After taking office on March 1, 1801, Jefferson decides that the commissions which have yet to be sent are better left unsent and, therefore, nullified in his opinion (this decision is carried out by Secretary of State James Madison). William Marbury is now without a commission; thus, he cannot officially be the Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. Hilarity ensues.

Synopsis of Proceedings

There is nothing particularly interesting about the proceedings.

Questions before the Court

  1. Did Marbury have the right to the commission?
  2. Do the laws of the U.S. give a legal remedy for Marbury?
  3. Is asking the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus ( the correct legal remedy?


In a 4-0 decision, Chief Justice John Marshall issued the opinion of the court joined by Justice Paterson, Justice Chase and Justice Washington (Justice Cushing and Justice Moore did not participate)–yes, there were only six Supreme Court seats at this time. The opinion states that the U.S. Supreme Court answers questions (1) and (2) in the affirmative. They believe that Marbury did have a legal right to the commission, and they opined that the legal remedy was a writ of mandamus filed against Madison (the Secretary of State): such an action would force Secretary Madison to issue the commissions which President Jefferson had asked him not to issue. However, the Court stopped there. Marshall points out that, in the Court’s opinion, the Congress did not have the power to expand the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as defined by the U.S. Constitution (they expanded the jurisdiction in the Judiciary Act of 1801). As such, the Court identifies the Judiciary Act of 1801 as unconstitutional, thereby revoking the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to file a writ of mandamus. Having deemed the power of the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus null and void, the case became moot, because the court could no longer, legally, carry out the prescribed legal remedy. Marshall states:

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department [the judicial branch] 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.

“So, if a law [e.g., a statute or treaty] be in opposition to the Constitution, if both the law and the Constitution apply to a particular case, so that the Court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the Constitution, or conformably to the Constitution, disregarding the law, the Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty. If, then, the Courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the Legislature, the Constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.

“Those, then, who controvert the principle that the Constitution is to be considered in court as a paramount law are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that courts must close their eyes on the Constitution, and see only the law [e.g., the statute or treaty].

“This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written constitutions.”


The Marshall Court, for the first time in U.S. history, sets the precedent that all U.S. courts must abide by the Constitution, first and foremost. In addition, the Marshall Court sets the precedent of Judicial Review, whereby the Court may declare an act or statute of the U.S. Congress or a State unconstitutional and, therefore, null and void. This is the basis of the awesomeness of the U.S. Supreme Court for the next two centuries.