Supreme Court Cases

What’s at Stake

Judicial v. Executive Power, Judicial Review

The History

The United States of America was barely 13 years-old when congress passed the Judiciary Act in 1789 permitting the Supreme Court to issue a “Writ of Mandamus” which is a fancy way of saying a “mandating order”.

Very interesting! Who gave the US Congress the right to simply pass a law telling the U.S. Supreme Court what or what it could not do? Remember, the US Constitution was already in place…set in stone and only an amendment to the Constitution can make those declarations. On the other hand, what in the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the right to ignore Congressional laws?

There’s the rub!

In 1803 President John Adams, in the last days of his presidency, make a few quickie appointments to government offices. One such appointment was William Marbury as a federal justice of the peace. The appointment, however, was not yet approved before Adams left office.

Thomas Jefferson was the incoming president and decided that the delayed appointment was not proper and instructed his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver that appointment.

In an angry response, Marbury and his supporters sued Madison to get the appointment approved stating that the Judiciary Act gave the Court power to issue the order to mandate that appointment and do so ASAP.

Well, Chief Justice John Marshall said not so fast. Just because Congress said the Court could issue that writ doesn’t make it necessarily right and proper. Marshall argued that there is nothing in the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to instruct the Supreme Court to willy-nilly do anything and that it is the Court’s job only to interpret laws and declare them constitutional or unconstitutional.

The problem was that it was never included in the Constitution that the Court could tell Congress to take a hike whenever Congress passed a law the Court thought unconstitutional. Marbury v. Madison was the very first time the US Supreme Court made the practice of Judicial Review its official purview; That it is the Court’s official duty and responsibility to interpret the laws passed by Congress to decide if they pass muster with the US Constitution.

The Verdict

4-0 in favor of Madison. The Judiciary Act was declared null and void. Marbury did not get his appointment. Congress got slapped in the face and the U.S. Supreme Court established the Constitution as the law of the land and its role to review all judicial rulings for adherence to the U.S. Constitution.  Period.