The U.S. government operates on a system of checks and balances. Three branches of government – the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial – are bestowed with individual powers which they jealously guard from each other. The Judicial Branch, headed by the Supreme Court of the United States, determines the constitutionality of executive and legislative acts through its power of judicial review. However, unlike the other two branches, the power of judicial review was not expressly given to the judicial branch and it’s Supreme Court by the Constitution. Instead, the Supreme Court brilliantly gave itself this power in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison without the other branches even making a fuss.
Shortly after independence from Great Britain, the Supreme Court did not hold much power. As mentioned, the Constitution did not enumerate the powers of the Court; it only said there was to be an independent Supreme Court with all other inferior courts below it. Thus, in the early days, justices were unsure of the reach of their powers. This resulted in the Court lagging behind the other two branches. The Court was so without power, that unlike today, its justices were eager to leave its bench. For example, George Washington’s first Chief Justice, John Jay, left the Court to be governor of New York. When asked to return to the Court by Washington, Jay refused.
Unlike the Court, the rest of America kept moving. By the time President Washington stepped down in 1797, America had formed her first political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. With the temptation to shape this new country, partisanship heightened. Federalists, headed by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, first took power. They used the Presidency to appoint federal judges. One such judge was John Marshall, who became Chief Justice of the Court in 1801. Marshall would prove instrumental in not only Marbury v. Madison, but also the defining of the Supreme Court.
Some context to Marbury v. Madison is important. The election of 1800 took power from the Federalists and gave it to the Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party. They swept into the Executive and Legislative branches, but could do little to expel the Federalists from the Judicial Branch. Federal judges are appointed, not elected. To allow his party to maintain as much power as possible despite losing the election, John Adams knew he must take action. In the late hours of his presidency, he began electing even more judges. Literally in the last day of his presidency, John Adams signed many judicial commissions, stuffed them into envelopes, and attempted to deliver them. Upon delivery and acceptance the recipient could become a judge. However, the hour ran late and the envelopes could not all be delivered.
When Thomas Jefferson came into office he purposely asked his Secretary of State, James Madison, to withhold the envelopes that had not been delivered. One of these envelopes contained the appointment of William Marbury. Being denied his job, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to order Madison to release the envelopes so that Marbury could become a judge. The case is known as Marbury v. Madison, but because of its late night and judicial circumstances, it is often called “The Case of the Midnight Judges.” However, Marbury’s job would not be easy to obtain. So weak was the Court at the time, that when it ordered the Jefferson administration to explain why the envelopes were being withheld, it was simply ignored.
In the meantime, Chief Justice John Marshall, began thinking of the Court and its role. If the Court did not take action in Marbury v. Madison, the Court would look ineffective in upholding justice. On the other hand, if the Court ordered James Madison to release the envelopes, the Court would simply be ignored, and would again look as being ineffective. Both of these options resulted in the Court setting a precedent of it being powerless. Marshall needed to think outside the box.
When the day came to decide on Marbury v. Madison in 1803, Marshall began by stating Marbury was indeed entitled to the envelope. The commission by President Adams was completely valid. Therefore, the withholding of the envelope by James Madison was illegal and amounted to a violation of Marbury’s rights.
Next, the Court pondered if Marbury was entitled to a remedy. Justice Marshall opined that it was the duty of the judiciary to protect the rights of citizens. Recognizing that a violation of any legal right was to be followed by a remedy, Marshall held that Marbury was entitled to a remedy. An act that would make Marbury whole again.
While it seemed that Marshall was taking on the Jefferson administration and handing Marbury a victory, Marshall would soon maneuver around the fight. Marshall knew that if the Court ordered the Jefferson administration a remedy for wronging Marbury it would likely be ignored and again look powerless. Instead, Marshall ruled the Court could not provide Marbury the remedy he sought. The reason, Marshall stated, was because the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. Jurisdiction of the Court had been extended by the Judiciary Act of 1789. Passed by Congress, that jurisdiction was unconstitutional. Holding that, when a law passed by the Legislative Branch was in conflict with the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, it was the duty of the Court to strike the legislative law and maintain the superiority of the Constitution. With this reasoning, Justice Marshall strategically moved the Court around granting an order which it could not enforce, while at the same time seizing the power of judicial review. This is precisely the legacy of Marbury v. Madison. The Courts ability to interpret and strike laws contrary to the Constitution through judicial review. Granted to the Supreme Court, by the Supreme Court, through Chief Justice Marshall’s own pen.
In current times, judicial review is the power of the Supreme Court that allows it to check the laws of Congress or orders of the President from exceeding the authority granted to the Legislative and Executive branches by the Constitution. Its application, for example, has held segregation to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Without Marbury v. Madison there is no Roe v. Wade. Without Marbury v. Madison, the America of today would not be the same.