Marbury v. Madison: Summary & Significance

In the historic United States Supreme Court case, Marbury Vs. Madison, the principle of judicial review was established. Judicial review is the power of the federal courts to declare legislative and executive acts as unconstitutional (Ford, Bardes, Schmidt, Shelley, 2018). This means that in the United States, the federal court system has the power to abolish laws, statutes, and other government actions that violate the United States Constitution. In the history of judicial review, this case is by far the most crucial (Hall, 1990).

This case set the precedent for the structure and power of our hierarchically designed government.

In the year 1800, John Adams was near the end of his term as President of the United States. Prior to his term ending, President Adams appointed 16 Circuit Judges and 42 Justice of the Peace. One of those Justice of the Peace appointees went by the name of William Marbury. Marbury’s appointment to the Justice had already been approved by the Senate and signed by President Adams before he left office.

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After that, William Marbury found it difficult to get his official commission so that he could begin working in his new position. James Madison was the Secretary of State at that time and would be the person to grant Marbury with the commission. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was elected as the new President of the United States. Jefferson chose to hold off on granting those commissions so he assigned James Madison to prevent them from being delivered. Once Marbury found out about this situation, he went to the Supreme Court

to request for a Writ of Mandamus.

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According to The United States Department of Justice, a Writ of Mandamus is “an order from a court to an inferior government official ordering the government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct any abuse of discretion (2018).” Chief Justice John Marshall stated that Marbury indeed had the right to be granted the commission, but the Supreme Court could not grant the Writ of Mandamus because the law directing them to do so was unconstitutional (Hall, 1990). Article III, Section II, Clause II of the United States Constitution “authorizes the Supreme Court to exercise original jurisdiction only in cases involving ambassadors, ministers, consuls, or states (2018).” This meant that the Supreme Court could not authorize its use of original jurisdiction in this case. There was a conflict between the United States Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established a federal court system. The Constitution states that the judicial branch would be composed of one Supreme Court and inferior courts such as Congress (2018). Ultimately, the Judiciary Act of 1801 was passed in order to reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from six to five. By 1803, the Supreme Court had established Judicial Review in the Marbury Vs. Madison case. Judicial Review is the power of the Supreme Court and other courts to evaluate and determine if a federal or state law is unconstitutional (Ford, et al, 2018). It examines the constitutionality of actions undertaken by the legislative and executive branches of government (Ford, et al, 2018). Due to the national jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has the greatest impact on the decision of a case. Because of this case, the structure of government has evolved and changed to become more efficient in the decision-making process of federal cases.

There are many pros and cons in debates about this policy due to the nature of the Marbury Vs. Madison case. Due to the fact that the Constitution is a law that cannot be altered, power prevents the President of the United States or members of Congress from passing laws that go against it (C., 2018). This is a good thing. Judges are in the best position to determine what exactly the Constitution declares. They are concerned with maintaining this core law and the will of the people. On the other hand, the power of judicial review does not always consider the popular will of the people such as the election of Congress or the President. People have been said to believe that judicial review should reside with the people or the legislatures. If the Supreme Court misinterprets the Constitution, this could cause problems between the states or other branches of the government. If a judge does make an error by misinterpreting the Constitution, it cannot be fixed by the ballot box and a Constitution Amendment must then be created (C., 2018).

The main point in the decision of the Marbury Vs. Madison case is that it is acceptable for the Supreme Court to review laws in order to determine if they are unconstitutional (Ford, et al, 2018). Also known as Judicial Review. This case was so pivotal in the power struggle because the writers of the Constitution wanted the government to have enough power to run the country, but not too much power (Hall, 1990). Through the process of Judicial Review, the Supreme Court adopts the Constitution to modern situations and changing values (Ford, et al, 2018). In the end, the law is what the Supreme Court says it is. It is the highest federal court in the United States.


  1. Ford, L. E., Bardes, B. A., Schmidt, S. W., & Shelley, M. C. (2018). American government and politics today. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
  2. Hall, K. L., & Sosin, J. M. (1990). The Aristocracy of the Long Robe: The Origins of Judicial Review in America. The Journal of American History, 77(3), 1013. doi:10.2307/2079042
  3. Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. C. (2018, March 14). Constitution of the United States of America. Retrieved from
  5. The United States Department of Justice. (2018, November 15). Retrieved from
Updated: Mar 05, 2021
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Marbury v. Madison: Summary & Significance. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved from

Marbury v. Madison: Summary & Significance essay
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