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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. Before Jefferson took office, John Adams, the outgoing President who was a Federalist, quickly appointed 58 members of his own party to fill government jobs created by Congress. He did this because he wanted people from his political party in office.

It was the responsibility of Adams' Secretary of State, John Marshall, to finish the paperwork and give it to each of the newly appointed officials. Although Marshall signed and sealed all of the papers, he failed to deliver 17 of them to the appointees. Marshall thought 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 papers. Those individuals couldn't take office until they actually had their papers in hand.

Adams had appointed William Marbury to be justice of the peace of the District of Columbia. Marbury was one of the last-minute appointees who did not receive his papers. He sued Jefferson's Secretary of State, James Madison, and asked the Supreme Court of the United States to issue a court order requiring that Madison deliver his papers.

Marbury argued that he was entitled to the job and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court of the United States original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus, which is the type of court order he needed. 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. The Court had to decide whether Marbury was entitled to his job, and if so, whether the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Court the authority it needed to force the Secretary of State to appoint Marbury to his position.

Questions to Consider
  1. Keeping in mind his role in the original appointments, who was Chief Justice Marshall likely to side with, Marbury or Madison? Why? 
  2. If the Court decided that Marbury was entitled to his job, 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 change the Court's jurisdiction?
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