Marbury V. Madison Essay

Constitutional Law
Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison, one of the first Supreme Court cases asserting the
power of judicial review, is an effective argument for this power;
however, it lacks direct textual basis for the decision. Marshall
managed to get away with this deficiency because of the silence on many
issues and the vague wording of the Constitution. During the early
testing period when few precedents existed, there was much debate about
fundamental issues concerning what was intended by the words of the
Constitution and which part of government should have the final word in
defining the meaning of these words. Marshall used the Marbury case to
establish the Supreme Court’s place as the final judge.

Marshall identified three major questions that needed to be answered
before the Court could rule on the Marbury v. Madison case. The first of
these was, “Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?” The
Constitution allows that “the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment
of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President
alone, . . . ” (Art. II, ? 2). The Judiciary Act of 1793 had given the
President the right to appoint federal judges and justices of the
peace; there is no dispute that such an appointment was within the scope
of the president’s powers. Debate arises because the Constitution is
silent on the exact time at which the appointment is considered
complete. The Supreme Court ruled that “when a commission has been
signed by the president, the appointment is made; and that the
commission is complete, when the seal of the United States has been
affixed to it by the [secretary of state].” This ruling does not have
direct constitutional support, but it is not an unreasonable decision.

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The second question which Marshall addressed was, “If [Marbury] has a
right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of this country
afford him a remedy?” The answer is logically yes although there are no
specific words in the Constitution to support such an answer. Based on
the type of government intended by the Constitution, the government is
expected to protect individual liberty. As Marshall says, “[The
government] will certainly cease to deserve [to be termed a government
of laws, and not of men] if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation
of a vested right.” However, with this assertion Marshall established
the power of the Supreme Court to review actions of the executive branch
– a power that does not stem directly from the Constitution.

The third and final question which Marshall addressed was whether
Marbury “is entitled to the remedy for which he applies.” Marshall
further divides this question into two parts: the nature of the writ and
the power of the Supreme Court. In examining the nature of the writ,
Marshall solidifies further the Supreme Court authority over members of
the executive branch. Marshall admits that “the officer to whom [the
writ] is to be directed, must be one to whom, on legal principles, such
writ may be directed . . . ” and that the Supreme Court cannot “enquire
how the executive, or executive officers, perform duties in which they
have discretion.” Yet Marshall insists that the Supreme Court can issue
a mandamus “[where the head of a department] is directed by law to do a
certain act affecting the absolute rights of individuals.” This
assertion does not have Constitutional basis. The Constitution does not
expressly grant the Supreme Court power over either of the other
branches of government.
Finally Marshall gets to the question based on which he decides the
case – the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over this case. For the first
time in this case, Marshall uses direct constitutional basis to make his
ruling. He argues that,
“If it had been intended to leave it in the discretion of the
legislature to apportion the judicial power between the supreme and
inferior courts according to the will of that body, it would certainly
have been useless to have proceeded further than to have defined the
judicial power . . . The plain import of the words seems to be, that
in one class of cases its jurisdiction is original and not appellate; in
the other it is appellate, and not original.”
He bases this ruling on Art. III ? 2, which enumerates the cases in
which the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction. Marshall
further maintains that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

In this contention as well Marshall has constitutional basis in Art. VI,
which states, “This constitution, and the Laws of the United States
which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; … shall be the supreme Law
of the Land.”
In his typical style, Marshall follows this constitutionally based
statement with one of the most controversial rulings, which has no
constitutional basis. He asserts, “It is emphatically the province and
duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” There is
nothing in the Constitution that assigns the duty of review solely to
the judicial department.

Although his decision loosely construes and even stretches the meaning
of the Constitution, Marshall’s ruling on this case overall is not
detrimental to the well-being of the American people. The Supreme Court
is the only branch of government that could act to strengthen the
national government during the early history of the Constitution.

Clearly, Congress could not take on the states’ rights advocates and the
state legislatures. If an early Congress had passed a law which a state
government objected to, the state legislature might have simply
nullified the law, thus forcing the national government into a
precarious situation. Congress would have to risk causing the state to
leave the Union to force them to comply with the new law. Furthermore,
the president also was not in a position to allow the federal government
more leeway in interpreting their powers. He does not make any laws of
his own and has no power to settle any questions of the states. Clearly,
the Supreme Court was the branch that could most easily facilitate the
strengthening of the national government into an effective and unified
nation rather than thirteen independent countries as the states had
seemed under the Articles of Confederation.

Critics will protest that the people do not elect the Supreme Court
Justices and therefore the Supreme Court should not have the power of
judicial review. As McCloskey points out, “No institution in a
democratic society could become and remain potent unless it could count
on a solid block of public opinion that would rally to it’s side in a
pinch.” Clearly, the Supreme Court is ultimately responsible to the will
of the people. By maintaining independence from politics, the Justices
avoid the major problems of political parties and party platforms.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s small size allows the Constitution to
speak with a unified voice throughout the country.


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