Marbury v. Madison (1803)

James Madison Building, Reading Room, Library of Congress

Supreme Court Decision.

Marbury v. Madison was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court which reaffirmed the concept of judicial review and uplifted the Supreme Court to be a co-equal branch along with the President and Congress. Read the following excerpts from the Marbury opinion and consider the questions that follow.

The authority, therefore, given to the supreme court, by the act establishing the judicial courts of the United States, to issue writs of mandamus to public officers, appears not to be warranted by the constitution …

The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written …

Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void …

It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department 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 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 Majority Opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison

The full version of the ruling is available at the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School. 

Analyze and Interpret

1. What does Chief Justice Marshall mean when he says “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”?

2. In the mind of Marshall, why can’t the legislature be the body which declares laws unconstitutional?

3. What is the significance of this decision. Think about checks and balances and the role and power of the federal government.


Photo/Image: Sculture by William Wetmore Story, Photo by Cliff