The Constitution of the United States establishes certain limits not to be transcended by the different departments of the government. The powers of the legislature are defined, and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the Constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction, between a government with limited and unlimited powers, is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the Constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it; or, that the legislature may alter the Constitution by an ordinary act.
William Marbury, Dennis Ramsay, Robert Townsend Hooe, and William Harper, by their counsel, Charles Lee, severally moved the court for a rule to James Madison, secretary of state of the United States, to show cause why a mandamus should not issue commanding him to cause to be delivered to them respectively their several commissions as justices of the peace in the district of Columbia. This motion was supported by affidavits of the following facts; that notice of this motion had been given to Mr. Madison; that Mr. Adams, the late president of the United States, nominated the applicants to the senate for their advice and consent to be appointed justices of the peace of the district of Columbia; that the senate advised and consented to the appointments; that commissions in the due form were signed by the said president appointing them justices, and that the seal of the United States was in due form affixed to the said commissions by the secretary of state; that the applicants have requested Mr. Madison to deliver them their said commissions, who has not complied with that request; and that their said commissions are withheld from them.
Applicant asked the Supreme Court to compel President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, by Writ of Mandamus, to deliver the commission.
Does the applicant have a vested right in the commission he demands?
The Court granted a rule to show cause, requiring the Secretary to show cause why a mandamus should not issue to direct him to deliver to the commissions. No cause was shown and the applicant filed a motion for a mandamus. The Court determined that the applicant had a vested legal right in his appointment because his commission had been signed by the President, sealed by the Secretary of State, and the appointment was not revocable.
The constitution vests the whole judicial power of the United States in one 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."
The Court held that § 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.