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Marbury v. Madison

The legal foundation for judicial supremacy
by

Rob Robinson

on 27 February 2011

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Transcript of Marbury v. Madison

DC v. Heller, 2008 Supreme Court:
Individuals have right
to own handguns. But: why does the Court, rather
than the other branches, have the last word on interpreting the Constitution? Article III - The Judicial Branch

Section 1 - Judicial powers

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office. Doesn't the Constitution
give the Court this power? Nope. So... why?

The answer: the
Court took the power
for itself. The legal foundation:
Marbury v. Madison (1803)

What were the facts of this case? Adams's Federalist
party lost both houses
of Congress, too. Before Jefferson takes office, Adams and his party create and fill a number of new federal judgeships.
Appointed at the last minute, called "midnight judges" So? "during good behavior" = for life.

Oh. Incoming President Thomas
Jefferson was not amused.

So unamused, in fact, he signaled he would "remove" all of these new judges. When Jefferson arrives at
the White House, he finds
many judicial commissions
in a desk, undelivered.

What does he do? In you go. One of these commissions
belongs to Mr. Marbury.

He sues, arguing he deserves his
judgeship. An easy legal question: is Marbury a judge when commission is signed, or when it is delivered?

Court felt the former theory was correct. A harder political
question.

Jefferson indicated he
would destroy the Court
if it ruled for Marbury. Chief Justice Marshall had two
choices. 1. Let Marbury lose his case:
take a short-term political hit. 2. Let Marbury win his case: risk the destruction of the young Court's institutional power. The expected flow of the case:

Does the Court have jurisdiction to hear the case? Does Marbury deserve
his judgeship? Wait--what? Stay with me here. 1. Congress set up the court system in 1789 by passing a law. 2. That same law required that lawsuits
like Marbury's go directly to the Supreme Court. 3. The Court declared the part of the 1789 law that gave them jurisdiction over Marbury's case unconstitutional; struck it down. So... the Court struck down the law
that allowed them to hear the case!

Marbury "won," but he was in the wrong
Court, so he was denied relief. Implications? Note: Sneaky move! Court strikes down a law that DECREASES its power.

Less for its opponents to get mad about. The Court wouldn't use
judicial review to strike down
a federal law again until... 1857 Which helped lead to... This. And not again until the
1890s. The 1800
Election:

Jefferson wins. Can the Marshall Court turn a lose-lose situation into a long-term victory?

Well, yes. Yes--Marbury's legal theory is correct. So Marbury wins, right? No--the Court can't hear the
case. Marbury is in the wrong
Court! 1. With their short-term victory,
Jefferson no longer has the support within his party needed to impeach the Supreme Court Justices. Important! Another result might have crippled the Court's power and
independence over the long run. While the full extent of judicial review wouldn't emerge until the 20th century, Marbury v. Madison laid the foundation for the dramatic increase in the Court's power. Article III - The Judicial Branch

Section 1 - Judicial powers

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office. 2. The Court had, for the first time,
struck down a federal law as unconstitutional,
and wrote an opinion justifying its power to do so.

That power would stand up.
Full transcript