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VOCABULARY – 9
TEXT 9 Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Often called the most important decision in the history of the Supreme Court, Mar-bury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review and the power of the Court to determine the constitutionality of legislative and executive acts.
The case arose from a political dispute in the aftermath of the presidential election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, defeated the incumbent president, John Adams, a Federalist. In the closing days of Adams’s administration, the Federalist-dominated Congress created a number of judicial positions, including 42 justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed the appointments, the president signed them, and it was the responsibility of the secretary of state to seal the commissions and deliver them. In the rush of last-minute activities, the outgoing secretary of state failed to deliver commissions to four justices of the peace, including William Marbury.
The new secretary of state under President Jefferson, James Madison, refused to deliver the commissions because the new administration was angry that the Federalists had tried to entrench members of their party in the judiciary. Marbury brought suit in the Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver his commission.
If the Court sided with Marbury, Madison might still have refused to deliver the commission, and the Court had no way to enforce the order. If the Court ruled against Marbury, it risked surrendering judicial power to the Jeffersonians by allowing them to deny Marbury the office he was legally entitled to. Chief Justice John Marshall resolved this dilemma by ruling that the Supreme Court did not have authority to act in this case. Marshall stated that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act, which gave the Court that power, was unconstitutional because it enlarged the Courts original jurisdiction from the jurisdiction defined by the Constitution itself. By deciding not to decide in this case, the Supreme Court secured its position as the final arbiter of the law.