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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (•••)

Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Republican Party, won the election of 1800. The outgoing President, John Adams, proceeded to rapidly appoint 58 members of his own party to fill government posts created by Congress.

It was the responsibility of the Secretary of State, John Marshall, to "deliver the commissions," finish the paperwork, and give it to each of the newly appointed judges. Although Marshall signed and sealed all of the commissions, he failed to deliver 17 of them to the respective appointees. Marshall assumed that his successor would finish the job, but when Jefferson became President, he told his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver some of the commissions, because he did not want members of the opposing political party to take office. Those individuals couldn't take office until they actually had their commissions in hand.

William Marbury, whom Adams had appointed as justice of the peace of the District of Columbia, was one of these last-minute appointees who did not receive his commission. Marbury sued James Madison and asked the Supreme Court of the United States to issue a writ of mandamus, a court order that requires an official to perform or refrain from performing a certain duty. In this case, the writ would have ordered Madison to deliver the commission.

Marbury argued that he was entitled to his commission and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court of the United States original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus. Madison disagreed. When the case came before the Court, John Marshall — the person who had failed to deliver the commission in the first place — was the new Chief Justice. If this situation were to arise today, Marshall would likely disqualify himself because of a conflict of interest.

Questions to Consider
  1. Who was Marshall likely to side with, Marbury or Madison? Why? 
  2. If the Court decided that Marbury was entitled to the commission, how could it be sure that the executive branch would deliver it? Does the Court have the power to force compliance? What would happen if the Court issued the writ, but the executive branch refused to comply? 
  3. According to Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution, in what types of cases does the Supreme Court of the United States have original jurisdiction? Does the Congress have the authority to alter the Court's jurisdiction?
< Marbury v. Madison