On this day in 1803, the extremely political case of Marbury v. Madison was decided in the most brilliant manner. At issue, of course, was the commission of William Marbury, who had been apart of President John Adam’s midnight appointments. While Marbury had been approved by the Senate, his commission had not been delivered by the Secretary of State, John Marshall. Hence, when James Madison became Secretary of State he found the undelivered commissions on his desk and refused to give Marbury his commission. Marbury sued for a Write of Mandamus, under the Judiciary Act of 1789, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court had been expanded to include such writs.
However, Marshall had a problem. If he ruled for Marbury, he risked weakening the authority of the Judicial Branch as he knew that President Jefferson had no intention of delivering Marbury’s commission. Since Marshall had no way to force Jefferson or Marbury to do so, he had to find away to validate the power of the Judicial Branch. Marshall also had a conflict of interest in this case. It was his fault that Marbury had not received his commission in time as he was the Secretary of State at the time. Hence, one could argue that he should have removed himself from the case as he had an interest in the decision. Marshall had to find away to justify his actions. As a result, Marshall looked back at the Constitution in Article III and other clauses. He noted that Congress did not have the right to expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. It could expand the appellate jurisdiction. Hence, Marshall ruled that part of the Judiciary Act contrary to the Constitution. While Marbury had a right to his decision, he was in the wrong court and needed to begin his case in a lower court. Therefore, Marshall had diffused the political decision by stating that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction as Congress did not have the power to expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Marshall declared the law unconstitutional. It would be another 50 years before another law would be declared unconstitutional. But Marshall left history with the most famous words, “ It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department [the judicial branch] 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. “