Marbury v. Madison, Part I

by Professor Byron L. Warnken on April 26, 2010

Prior to the Twelfth Amendment, whichever candidate received the most electoral votes became President.  In 1800, because no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College, the election went into the House of Representatives, where each state has one vote.  After six days and 36 ballots, the House elected Vice-President Jefferson to be the third President.

Ironically, in the first north-south battle, art. I, § 2 of the Constitution (known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise”) likely enabled Jefferson to defeat President Adams.  Under the Three-Fifths Compromise, each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for determining electoral votes.  By adding three-fifths of their slaves, southern states increased their congressional representation, while still preventing slaves from having rights.  For example, a person that owned 100 slaves would count as 61 people – slave owner, plus three-fifths of each slave.  The 1800 U.S. population was 5.3 million, including almost a million slaves.

Before leaving office, Adams made what are known as the “midnight oil appointments.”  With political rival Jefferson about to be President, Adams appointed his friends to government positions.  On March 2, 1801, Adams appointed William Marbury to be a D.C. Justice of the Peace.  Two days later, Jefferson became President and appointed James Madison as Secretary of State.  After inauguration, Marbury sought his judicial commission, but was denied by Madison.  Marbury filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus in the Supreme Court, as authorized by the Judiciary Act of 1789.  Mandamus applies when a government official fails to fulfill a mandatory task, i.e., provide the judicial commission.

The Constitution provides that “[i]n all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Counsuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.  In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction.”  The Supremacy Clauses provides that “[t]his Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof . . . , shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . .”

In Marbury, the Supreme Court interpreted its trial and appellate jurisdiction and applied the Supremacy Clause to hold that the Court lacked jurisdiction because the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional to the extent that it gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over petitions for writ of mandamus.  The Court held that the framers gave original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court in cases affecting ambassadors, public ministers and counsuls, while giving the Court appellate jurisdiction in all the other cases.  Implicitly, as to those types of cases not listed among the original jurisdiction provision, the Supreme Court cannot have original jurisdiction.  Thus, the framers denied original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court for Petitions for Writ of Mandamus, and any statute purporting to give the Court original jurisdiction for such cases was unconstitutional.  This was the first case in which the Supreme Court struck down a statute as unconstitutional.

Marbury v. Madison established the principle of “judicial review,” making the judicial branch “first among equals” by speaking last … more to come on Wednesday.

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Marbury v. Madison, Part II
April 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm

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