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Marbury v. Madison

 Related Terms

• Supreme Court
Judiciary Act of 1789
John Marshall
Gibbons v. Ogden
McCulloch v. Maryland


Definition: First decision by the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional (1803).

Here is a summary:

  • At the very end of his term, President John Adams had made many federal appointments, including William Marbury as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia.
  • Thomas Jefferson, the new president, refused to recognize the appointment of Marbury.
  • The normal practice of making such appointments was to deliver a "commission," or notice, of appointment. This was normally done by the Secretary of State. Jefferson's Secretary of State at the time was James Madison.
  • At the direction of Jefferson, Madison refused to deliver Marbury's commission. Marbury sued Madison, and the Supreme Court took the case.
  • Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Judiciary Act of 1789, which spelled out the practice of delivering such commissions for judges and justices of the peace, was unconstitutional because it the gave the Supreme Court authority that was denied it by Article III of the Constitution. Thus, the Supreme Court said, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was illegal and not to be followed.

This was the first time the Supreme Court struck down a law because it was unconstitutional. It was the beginning of the practice of "judicial review."

Related Resources:

Marbury v. Madison
All about the famous case

The Supreme Court
Learn more about the nation's top court.

The 19th Century
Get a glimpse of what life was like in the exciting 1800s.

Elsewhere on the Web:
Encyclopedia Article: Marbury v. Madison
Just the facts.

Text of the Opinion
Read it for yourself.

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