The appointments were approved by the Senate, but there was not enough time for all of the credentials to be delivered before Jefferson was sworn in. As soon as he took the oath of office, Jefferson ordered the new appointees not to be given their commissions, thus de facto nullifying Adams’ appointments.
William Marbury, who had been appointed by John Adams to be the Justice of the Peace over the DC area, filed a writ with the Supreme Court, stating it was their jurisdiction to be certain he received his commission by ordering a writ of mandamus on Madison, forcing him to hand it over.
The court heard the case, and on February 24th, 1803, issued its decision. The main argument was whether or not the Supreme Court had power to give a writ of mandamus, which Congress said it did. The court ruled that Madison should have given Marbury his commission, because he had a right to it.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 stated that the Supreme Court could then order Madison to hand over the commission. Chief Justice John Marshall said not it was not so. In his statement, Marshall would set in stone precedent that continues to this day: Judicial Review, the power of the court to declare unconstitutional the acts of the congress.
Marshall declared that even though the 1789 act had given him power to demand Madison give Marbury his commission, the Constitution did not, thus, he overruled congress, and said although Marbury deserved the commission, he, as a Supreme Court Judge, could not make Madison give it to him. The vote was a unanimous 4-0. (The court then being smaller.)
The case went down in history, as 5 US 137, (1803) in the fifth volume of the court’s decisions, the explanations beginning on the hundred and thirty-seventh page. But it went down as more than that, because, “a legislative act contrary to the constitution is not law: if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable….an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void.”
Thus Marshall asserted the power of the constitution, everything else notwithstanding. He then stated “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” It was certainly not a new doctrine, Sir William Blackstone of England had said years before “There is no such thing as a bad law.” If the law is bad, it is not a law.
Marshall stated that to disagree with this would be to close your eyes to the constitution.
There was outcry. The president called it “a very dangerous doctrine indeed” that the court was the above the legislatures in interpreting the constitution. Others said the court had no power to overrule congress, and that Marshall himself should possibly get into trouble.
According to the Congressional Research Services, there have been 163 acts of congress overturned by the court, although they have historically been very careful, and only using it as a last resort. Congress can also forbid them to rule on certain issues.
Marshall finishes his case by stating that the oath of office itself makes the constitution the supreme law of the land:
“Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the constitution of the United States, if that constitution forms no rule for his government? If it is closed upon him and cannot be inspected by him.
“If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe, or to take this oath, becomes equally a crime.”
Congress was overruled, the Supreme Court did not have the power to issue a writ of mandamus. William Marbury never served as Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia.
Andrew C. Abbott