Published on March 8, 2011 by Carol
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Papers of John Marshall
Marbury v. Madison (1803) was the first important case before Marshall’s Court. In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on the grounds that it violated the Constitution by attempting to expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Marbury was the first and only case in which the Marshall Court ruled an act of Congress unconstitutional, and thereby reinforced the doctrine of judicial review. Thus, although the Court indicated that the Jefferson administration was violating another law, the Court said it could not do anything about it due to its own lack of jurisdiction. President Thomas Jefferson took the position that the Court could not give him a mandamus (i.e. an order) even if the Court had jurisdiction:
More generally, Jefferson lamented that allowing the Constitution to mean whatever the Court says it means would make the Constitution “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”
Because Marbury v. Madison decided that a jurisdictional statute passed by Congress was unconstitutional, that was technically a victory for the Jefferson administration (so it could not easily complain). Ironically what was unconstitutional was Congress’ granting a certain power to the Supreme Court itself. The case allowed Marshall to proclaim the doctrine of judicial review, which reserves to the Supreme Court final authority to judge whether or not actions of the president or of the congress are within the powers granted to them by the Constitution. The Constitution itself is the supreme law, and when the Court believes that a specific law or action is in violation of it, the Court must uphold the Constitution and set aside that other law or action, assuming that a party has standing to properly invoke the Court’s jurisdiction. Chief Justice Marshall famously put the matter this way:
The Constitution does not explicitly give judicial review to the Court, and Jefferson was very angry with Marshall’s position, for he wanted the President to decide whether his acts were constitutional or not. Historians mostly agree that the framers of the Constitution did plan for the Supreme Court to have some sort of judicial review; what Marshall did was make operational their goals. Judicial review was not new and Marshall himself mentioned it in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788. Marshall’s opinion expressed and fixed in the American tradition and legal system a more basic theory—government under law. That is, judicial review means a government in which no person (not even the President) and no institution (not even Congress or the Supreme Court itself), nor even a majority of voters, may freely work their will in violation of the written Constitution. Marshall himself never declared another law of Congress or act of a president unconstitutional.