School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic C. Protecting Rights and Maintaining Order

Indicator 1. Examine the impact of governmental decisions on individual rights and responsibilities in the United States

Objective c. Explain the significance of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison which established judicial review


In an effort to ensure that the Federalist Party would continue to play a role in the U.S. Government in spite of its defeat in the presidential election of 1800, outgoing President John Adams nominated dozens of loyal supporters to a variety of positions during the weeks preceding his departure from office. Among these appointments was William Marbury, whom Adams named to become a justice of the peace for Washington, D.C. Although Marbury’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 3, 1801, Adams’s final day in office, and his commission to the position was officially sealed by outgoing Secretary of State John Marshall, who was about to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, one final step remained before Marbury could assume his new role: formal delivery of the sealed commission. After this did not take place prior to Adams’s departure from office, on March 4 incoming Secretary of State James Madison refused Marbury’s request for delivery of his commission. Marbury next took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Section 13 of The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to issue documents known as writs of mandamus, which are orders forcing public officials to carry out their responsibilities. Citing the Judiciary Act, Marbury appealed to the Supreme Court to issue such a writ to require Madison to deliver the sealed commission. On the surface, it seemed to all parties involved that the Supreme Court would consider the narrow issues of whether or not Madison had the authority to choose to deliver Marbury’s commission, and whether a writ of mandamus was an appropriate remedy for Marbury to force Madison to do so. But in deciding Marbury’s case, Chief Justice Marshall and a unanimous Supreme Court raised a far more significant issue: Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 contradicted Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution, which specifies the areas over which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction. Marshall and his colleagues on the Court concluded that matters involving writs of mandamus were not included on this short list. Therefore, the Supreme Court declared, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional, and the Court was not authorized to issue the writ Marbury needed to secure his commission.

Marshall’s 1803 ruling in Marbury was the Supreme Court’s first official acknowledgement of the judiciary’s authority to decide whether acts of Congress, the executive branch, state laws, and even state constitutions, violate the Constitution of the United States. The reasoning behind the decision rests upon the following premises:

  • The supremacy of the Constitution, which had been ratified by “we the people,” over laws passed by Congress, actions of the executive, state laws, and state constitutions;
  • The temporary and fleeting nature of particular acts of Congress, executives, and state governments;
  • The inherent authority and responsibility of judges “to say what the law is,” or to interpret legislation and determine its compatibility with the Constitution.

Although the power of judicial review had been exercised by state judges prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison, and had even been acknowledged by none other than James Madison in the Federalist papers, many leaders in the United States were skeptical of Marshall’s broad declaration of the courts’ power to declare laws unconstitutional. These leaders feared the assumption of such a significant power by unelected government officials. President Andrew Jackson, for example, threatened not to enforce the Court’s 1832 ruling in Worcester v. Georgia, which nullified a Georgia Indian-affairs law. Over time, however, the Marbury v. Madison ruling had the effect of cementing the federal judiciary’s role as a branch of government coequal with legislative and executive. According to John J. Patrick’s The Supreme Court of the United States: A Student Companion, in the more than 200 years since the Marbury ruling “the Supreme Court has used the power of judicial review to overturn more than 150 acts of Congress and more than 1,200 state laws.” Indeed, many of the most important and influential decisions in the Court’s history, including McCulloch v. Maryland, Dred Scott v. Sanford, and Brown v. Board of Education, rested on the Court’s authority to overturn actions taken by the political branches of government.

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