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Reviewing the birth of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v Madison

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As any 1L can attest, Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (Cranch 1) 137 (1803), represents the moment that the doctrine of judicial review was enshrined in American law. But students of history will tell you that this case was the culmination of the dramatic presidential election of 1800.

Federalist President John Adams was defeated by Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (but not before a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr that took a staggering 36 votes by the House of Representatives to break). With only weeks left in Adams’s term, the Federalist Congress authorized Adams to fill a number of new judgeships and justiceships. Adams signed appointments for these “midnight judges” and “midnight justices of the peace” until the eve of Jefferson’s inauguration, but several of the appointments could not be delivered before Jefferson took office and thus were ineffective.

One of those appointees, William Marbury, sued the new Secretary of State, James Madison, in the U.S. Supreme Court to compel delivery. In a now-iconic opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall recognized that Marbury had a right to his appointment yet refused to grant relief. Instead, Marshall declared that Congress had exceeded its authority in granting the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over the matter, implicitly declaring the authority of the Court to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional and shaping the future of American jurisprudence in the process.

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