Plaintiffs: William Marbury, William Harper, Robert R. Hooe, Dennis Ramsay
Defendant: James Madison, U.S. Secretary of State
Plaintiff's Claim: That U.S. Secretary of State James Madison must deliver judicial commissions issued by his predecessor to their rightful recipients.
Chief Lawyer of Plaintiffs: Charles Lee
Chief Lawyer for Defendant: Levi Lincoln, U.S. Attorney General
Justices for the Court: Samuel Chase, William Cushing, Chief Justice John Marshall, William Paterson, Bushrod Washington
Justices Dissenting: None (Alfred Moore did not participate)
Date of Decision: February 24, 1803
Decision: Ruled in favor of Madison by finding that the Judiciary Act of 1789 giving legal authority to federal courts to order government officials to act was unconstitutional.
Significance: The ruling is considered by many the most important decision in American legal history. The Court established the guiding principles of judicial review which recognized the federal courts' role in reviewing acts of Congress and states regarding their constitutionality. The Supreme Court thus became a significantly powerful part of the American governmental system.
"It is, emphatically, the province [within court's power] and duty of the judicial department [the courts] to say what the law is." This dramatic and often quoted statement was made by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (1803). Often called the single most important decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, Marbury established the power of judicial review. Judicial review allows federal courts to review laws enacted by Congress and to declare a law invalid if it is found to violate the Constitution. However, the Court may not invalidate (overturn) just any law merely because it violates the Constitution. Such a decision by the Court may be made only when a specific lawsuit is brought before the Court requiring a determination that a law is constitutional. Additionally, judicial review allows federal courts to see that government officials, including the president, act in accordance with constitutional principles.
Unlike many constitutions of countries around the world, the Constitution of the United States is more than just a description of the existing governmental system. It is also an active, living instrument in which is found the source of power and limits of power among the three governmental branches.
Chief Justice Marshall viewed the Constitution as a broad outline describing important goals. The details of how to carry out those goals, of how to fill in the outline, was left to the working government. But, which part of government would have the ultimate responsibility to guard the written terms of the Constitution and to see that the power of each branch of government was properly limited? This question was first debated at length in the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787. They found little guidance in the history of English law as to who should be the Constitution's final interpreter. Although the Framers made it clear some sort of review of legislation needed to be established, the exact nature of the review was left undefined. In Federalist Paper No. 78, written by Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804 ) in 1788, the...