What Supreme Court case established judicial review

Marbury v. Madison: The Supreme Court Case That Established Judicial Review

Background of the Case

how did the supreme court gain the power of judicial review?

In the weeks before Thomas Jefferson took office as President in 1801, his predecessor John Adams and the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created new judicial offices and judgeships. Adams proceeded to fill these vacancies by appointing Federalist judges, hoping to extend his party’s influence in the judicial branch.

William Marbury’s Commission

One of the “midnight” appointments made by Adams shortly before leaving office was William Marbury as a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C. Although Adams signed Marbury’s commission and affixed the seal of the United States to it, the commission was not delivered before Adams’ term expired.

The Midnight Judges Act

The Judiciary Act of 1801 outraged Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican allies. As soon as Jefferson took office, his party moved quickly to repeal the act. However, this still left uncertainty over the status of the judges appointed in the act’s aftermath.

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Thomas Jefferson Becomes President

When Jefferson assumed the presidency, he ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver commissions like Marbury’s. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court, suing Madison to compel delivery of the commission documents that were rightfully his.

Marbury Sues for His Commission

William Marbury decided to file suit with the Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver his commission documents. The case became known as Marbury v. Madison.

Key Questions Before the Supreme Court

The Marbury case posed two key questions for the Supreme Court to decide:

Did Marbury Have a Right to His Commission?

The first issue was whether Marbury had a legal right to his commission once President Adams signed it and affixed the seal of the United States. The Judiciary Act of 1789 had given the Supreme Court authority to issue writs of mandamus in cases like Marbury’s to force public officials to fulfill duties.

Did the Law Give the Supreme Court the Power to Force Delivery of the Commission?

If Marbury did have a right to the commission, the Supreme Court then had to decide whether the Judiciary Act of 1789 had properly given it the authority to issue such writs regarding executive branch appointments and commissions.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall issued the landmark ruling, deciding the case on two key grounds:

Marbury Had a Right to His Commission

First, on the question of Marbury’s rights, the Court ruled that his commission as justice of the peace had been duly signed and sealed, so delivery of his commission documents became a non-discretionary duty of the Secretary of State. Madison’s withholding of them violated Marbury’s legal rights.

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The Supreme Court Lacked Jurisdiction

However, addressing the Court’s own authority, Marshall held that the provision of the Judiciary Act permitting the Court to issue writs of mandamus to executive branch officials exceeded what the Constitution allowed. Therefore, that provision was null and void. The Court lacked proper original jurisdiction to compel Madison’s delivery of Marbury’s commission.

The Court Establishes Judicial Review

In his opinion, Marshall established one of the seminal principles of American constitutional law—the concept of judicial review. The Supreme Court, Marshall asserted, had authority under the Constitution to deem portions of laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional and therefore not valid and enforceable.

Impact of the Decision

Marshall’s deft opinion had several important impacts:

Limited the Supreme Court’s Own Power

It avoided an immediate political clash with the Jefferson administration by declining to issue a mandamus order Madison might ignore, which would undermine the Court. But it simultaneously claimed the power of judicial review as essential to its functions.

Established the Principle of Judicial Review

This asserted ultimate authority to review legislation and executive actions to determine their constitutionality and reconcile them with America’s fundamental governing charter. Judicial review became a pillar of the American constitutional system.

Strengthened the System of Checks and Balances

By securing its capability to void legislation deemed unconstitutional, the Court positioned itself as an important check on Congress’s power rather than subservient to it. This strengthened the overall system of checks and balances between the branches of government.

Judicial Review Since Marbury v. Madison

Marshall’s landmark opinion laid the foundation for the Supreme Court’s ongoing use of judicial review:

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Key Cases Expanding Judicial Review

Over time, the Court established its purview to declare state laws and presidential actions unconstitutional, not just federal statutes. Cases like McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and United States v. Nixon (1974) upheld robust use of judicial review.

Limits Placed on Judicial Review

However, principles like rational basis review were also established, requiring judicial deference to the elected branches as long as laws have some reasonable justification. The Court also avoided deciding “political questions” unsuitable for judicial determination.

Ongoing Debates Over the Power

Despite general acceptance of judicial review, intense debates have persisted over its proper scope. Controversial decisions like Roe v. Wade (1973) still spark disputes over whether the Court has overreached the intended boundaries of its power.


The genius of John Marshall’s Marbury v. Madison opinion was in expanding judicial authority while avoiding direct conflict with the Jefferson administration. In claiming the power of judicial review for the Supreme Court, Marshall established a defining role for the judicial branch within America’s system of separated governmental powers. Despite two centuries of ongoing dispute over this authority in hard cases, judicial review endures as a cornerstone of U.S. constitutional law.


  1. What was the specific issue Marbury sued over in Marbury v. Madison?

Marbury sued to compel Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the papers commissioning Marbury as a justice of the peace. The outgoing Adams administration had signed and sealed the commission, but failed to deliver it before leaving office.

  1. What power did the Supreme Court claim in its Marbury v. Madison decision?

The Court claimed the authority of judicial review—the power to deem acts of Congress and other government actions unconstitutional if they violate the U.S. Constitution.

  1. How did Marbury v. Madison strengthen the system of checks and balances?

By asserting judicial review, the Court established itself as an independent check on the power of the legislative and executive branches, restricting their ability to violate constitutional boundaries.

  1. Which chief justice authored the Court’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison?

The opinion establishing judicial review as a Court power was authored by the third Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.

  1. Does judicial review mean Supreme Court rulings are always final and binding?

No. Unconstitutional rulings can be overridden by constitutional amendments. Also, new Court majorities can sometimes overturn prior precedents through subsequent cases. But judicial review gives the Court major power.

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