Marbury v. Madison

5 U.S. 137, 2 L. Ed. 60, 1803 U.S. LEXIS 352, 1 Cranch 137



The Supreme Court of the United States does not have original jurisdiction to hear disputes not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution; however, it has appellate jurisdiction over all judicial proceedings and is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.


At the end of the term of his presidency, President John Adams nominated plaintiff William Marbury and three other men to serve as justices of the peace in the District of Columba. The U.S. Senate consented to the appointments, and President Adams signed the commissions, affixing the seal of the United States. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President. Plaintiff and the three men did not receive their commissions. They moved the United States Supreme Court for a rule requiring defendant (then acting in his capacity as Secretary of State of the United States) to show cause why a mandamus should not issue commanding to deliver the commissions. The Court granted the rule. Defendant did not deliver the commissions, and plaintiff filed a motion for mandamus, seeking an order compelling the delivery of his commission.


1. Does the U.S. Supreme Court have the authority to review acts of Congress to determine constitutionality?

2. Did plaintiff have a right to delivery of his commission?

3. If plaintiff had a right to the commission, would he have an available remedy (mandamus) under the laws of the United States of America?

4. If plaintiff had a remedy, does the U.S. Supreme Court have original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus?


1. Yes 2. Yes 3. Yes 4. No


1. The courts are bound to take notice of the Constitution, and it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each. So if a law be in opposition to the Constitution; if both the law and the Constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the Constitution; or conformably to the Constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.

2. The Court ruled that the appointment was not revocable and vested in the applicant legal rights that were protected by the laws of the United States of America. The Court held that to withhold the applicant’s commission was an act not warranted by law and violated the applicant’s vested legal right.

3. The Court noted that whenever there is a right to execute an office, perform a service, or exercise a franchise (more specifically if it be in a matter of public concern, or attended with profit) and a person is kept out of the possession, or dispossessed of such right, and has no other specific legal remedy, the court ought to assist by mandamus, upon reasons of justice, as the writ expresses, and upon reasons of public policy, to preserve peace, order and good government. This writ ought to be used upon all occasions where the law has established no specific remedy, and where in justice and good government there ought to be one.

4. A writ of mandamus to a public officer belonged to original jurisdiction. The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is limited to the powers set out for it in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution vests the whole judicial power of the United States in the Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as Congress shall, from time to time, ordain and establish. This power is expressly extended to all cases arising under the laws of the United States; and consequently, in some form, may be exercised over the present case; because the right claimed is given by a law of the United States. In the distribution of this power it is declared that the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction. Accordingly, the statute relied upon by plaintiff for relief, § 13 of the Act of 1789, giving the Court authority to issue writs of mandamus to an officer, was contrary to the Constitution as an act of original jurisdiction, and therefore void. The rule was discharged and plaintiff did not receive his commission.

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